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Birds of Prey - Hetero

Snekguy Jun 19th, 2018 (edited) 14,620 Never
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  1. Tags: size difference, muscle, abs, group sex, oral, fingering, feathers, handjob, blowjob, femdom, gentle femdom, face-sitting, messy, vaginal, maledom, creampie, light bondage, tailjob
  2.  
  3. CHAPTER 1: U.F.O
  4.  
  5.     The alarm blared, the sound of boots hammering on the deck joining the siren as the hangar bay was filled with a rush of activity. The running figures and idle spacecraft were illuminated by flashing, orange warning lighting, instructions coming through on loudspeakers and radios as the personnel hurried to their positions.
  6.     Jaeger was already wearing his helmet, double-checking the seals on his flight suit as he made his way towards his plane, listening to the chatter in his ear.
  7.     “...heat signatures in the Oort cloud, nothing showing up on radar, but there's a lot of interference from small bodies and debris...”
  8.     Just like with every long-range patrol, or 'Bug hunts' as they were colloquially known, the UNN Rorke had been drifting along the edge of Coalition space and scanning for Betelgeusian activity for weeks now with no contacts. Jaeger was itching to get back into the cockpit, to stretch his wings in the black void of space. Being cooped up inside the jump carrier was nearly enough to drive him crazy.
  9.     His chest swelled with excitement as he arrived beside his ship, its angular, black chassis making it look like it had been chiseled from a block of solid onyx. The airframe was designed for the lowest possible radar cross-section, the swept wings, dual tail fins and the pointed nose betraying the vessel's atmospheric flight capabilities. It was an FS-26 Beewolf spaceplane, a short-range fighter that could operate both in deep space and in the atmosphere of a planet when necessary. Looking closely, one could make out the innumerable nozzles and thrusters that were spaced out all along the hull, used to orient it in a vacuum where its aerodynamic design counted for naught.
  10.     He stepped out of the way as a Krell lumbered past him, the gigantic reptile carrying a missile in its muscular arms as if the nine foot, two hundred pound projectile weighed no more than a pool noodle. The alien looked to be about fifteen feet from nose to tail, eight feet tall due to its hunched, bipedal posture. Its back was covered in scales and armored scutes like a crocodile, spinach green in color, and it was wearing a yellow poncho that identified it as a member of the engineering crew.
  11.     Jaeger watched the alien as it leaned under the craft's delta wing and began to affix the missile to a vacant hardpoint. When it was done, it stepped out from beneath the plane, its long tail dragging along the deck.
  12.     “We good to go, buddy?” Jaeger asked. The Krell turned its alligator-like snout in his direction, then curled its many-fingered hand into a fist, giving him a thumbs-up. The Krell lacked the vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech, but they understood the language well enough. They were just one of the many alien races that served alongside humanity in the multi-species Coalition.
  13.     Even as he climbed up to the cockpit, Jaeger could hear the other pilots spooling up their engines and running thruster diagnostics. The deck crew moved off as the vessels prepared to launch, Jaeger sliding into his seat and hitting the button that would close the transparent canopy. The cockpit was high on the nose of the craft, which provided excellent visibility, and he watched the yellow-clad figures retreat to safety as his suit jacked into the plane's internal systems.
  14.     The full-faced visor on his helmet slid down, sealing over his head with a hiss, the heads-up display overlaying his field of view with ghostly green graphics and information as it flickered to life. External cameras mounted all around the vessel streamed a video feed to his helmet, the latency low enough that it allowed him to see through the chassis in real time, giving him an unobstructed view in every direction. If an enemy craft were below, or even directly behind him, this system would allow him to view it as if he was looking through glass.
  15.     The helmet was designed both to feed him system information and targeting data, as well as to protect him from the certain death of decompression if his vessel should lose pressure. He felt cool air across his face as the oxygen supply turned on, his flight suit shifting like it was a living thing, flexing and tightening around his limbs. It could contract to restrict blood flow to his extremities during the extreme-G maneuvers that space combat often required, preventing him from blacking out, at least to a point.
  16.     As soon as his gloved hands found the joystick, he felt like he was home, hitting switches on the control panel and booting up the various systems. The vessel seemed to wake up, its thrusters swiveling and shooting puffs of gas as the flight computer ran diagnostics, the rudders and ailerons tilting. The main engine of the craft stretched like a limb, the vectoring nozzle expanding and contracting, Jaeger feeling a rumble beneath his feet as it spooled up. The data readout on his HUD showed that all systems were green, weapons operational, propulsion gas canisters and chemical fuel tanks full.
  17.     Before him was the hangar's shimmering force field, a flimsy energy barrier that would keep the atmosphere in, while allowing solid objects to pass. Beyond it was the velvet blackness of space, dotted with twinkling stars, the void calling to him. He listened intently to his radio as he secured his straps, waiting for the order to launch. They had been on standby for so long that he felt like he might explode if he didn't get out there in the next couple of minutes.
  18.     “Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers. Your orders are to follow the patrol route and investigate the anomalous heat signatures.”
  19.     That was Jaeger's plane, and 'Scorch' had been assigned as his wingman, excellent. The callsigns that the pilots used might sound aggrandizing to the uninitiated, but they were more often than not assigned as a reference to some monumental fuckup or as a squadron in-joke. Richard 'Scorch' Baker had earned his callsign when he had failed to retract his radiators during reentry while training at the academy, causing them to melt and overheat his engines. Fortunately, he had been able to glide to safety. Jaeger's callsign was 'Bullseye', a reference to him accidentally firing an extremely expensive missile into deep space during a combat exercise.
  20.     He looked around, noticing that two other fighters were starting to taxi into position as well, waiting for their turn to launch. They must have been ordered to patrol along a slightly different route to cover more ground. It looked like Boomer and Scratcher. Boomer hadn't figured out that breaking the sound barrier while doing a low flyby over a populated area was a bad idea, and Scratcher had been caught sharing a bed with a Borealan recruit within his first week on the job.
  21.     Jaeger lined up his plane ready for takeoff, using his helmet to look through the floor of his cockpit to make sure that he was properly aligned with the markings on the deck as Scorch taxied up beside him. He looked over his shoulder, watching as a metal panel rose from the deck of the hangar on a pneumatic piston, the angled square of blackened metal designed to deflect and absorb the heat from the engine during takeoff so that it didn't cook the vessels directly behind it. As large as the hangar was, there were still dozens of fighters and dropships crammed into the space.
  22.     Unlike in the atmosphere of a planet, there was no need to gain a great deal of speed in order to generate lift. One needed only to escape the artificial gravity field of the carrier and then they were in open space, where only short bursts from the engines and thrusters were necessary to maneuver. Extended burns were usually a very bad idea, because the more momentum that was generated, the more thrust would have to be applied in the opposite direction to slow down again. Space flight had almost nothing in common with atmospheric flight, there was no banking to turn, there was no danger of stalling. The aircraft could move in any direction, and at any speed in a three-dimensional space, the only limiting factor being fuel consumption and the G-forces applied to the pilot.
  23.     Some argued that fighters flown remotely would be better suited to the task, able to execute maneuvers that would turn an organic occupant to jelly. But due to the massive distances involved where space combat was concerned, the only way to ensure a low enough latency connection for that to be viable was by laser transmission, which could be obstructed by objects and hazards. You couldn't send a laser signal to a vessel that was on the other side of a planet, for example, not without satellites already in place to bounce the beam. Automated drones were a possibility, but so far the only species that had developed advanced enough computing technology to achieve that were the Brokers, and they weren't too keen on sharing it. At least for the foreseeable future, Jaeger wouldn't be out of a job.
  24.     The indicator on his HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch. Wasting no time, he gave the throttle a short squeeze, orange flames splashing against the panel behind him as the acceleration pinned him to his seat. In a flash, the brightly lit interior of the bay was replaced with the darkness of space, only the relatively thin barrier of his canopy protecting him from the freezing cold and the deadly radiation. Space looked so serene and pristine, but it was actually swarming with charged particles that would turn his chromosomes into Swiss cheese, along with dust and debris that could hit with the force of a bullet. The spacecraft were made of stern stuff, but every spacefarer feared the day that the cruel hand of fate might send an errant micrometeorite hurtling towards his head.
  25.     He rotated the fighter on its axis and retracted his landing gear, angling the nose towards the vast field of ice and rock in the distance. To his right, he could see the jump carrier and its trailing support vessels, torpedo boats and CIWS frigates floating along in a lazy formation like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest vessels in the Navy were big enough to house the nuclear reactors that were needed to power the jump drives, the smaller vessels had to be towed in their slipstream. The carrier was already dwindling to the size of a toy, the ocean-grey hull shaped vaguely like a giant snub-nosed bullet, with recesses along its length for docking dropships and other craft when the hangars were full. Its belly and flanks bristled with weaponry. There were lines of closed hatches that housed torpedo bays, long railguns on flexible arms, and point defense turrets jutting from its bulbous hull. A carrier could both defend itself and deal an incredible amount of damage to anything that was unwise enough to get into range.
  26.     A burst of flame drew his eye, and he made out Scorch leaving the hangar, using the telescope function on his visor to zoom in on the fighter as it drifted towards him. He heard crackling static in his earpiece, and then mission control came through.
  27.     “We’ve got some weird heat signatures showing up on the thermal scans, could be recent collisions between large bodies, but it's not likely. Radar won't be of much use out there, there's a lot of shit floating around, so keep your eyes peeled. Remember, don't engage unless necessary, this is a recon mission.”
  28.     “Copy that, mission control,” he replied. “We'll just do a little sight-seeing.”
  29.     Scorch moved into formation, the black fighter barely visible against the backdrop of space, but Jaeger's flight computer tagged the location of all friendly vessels in the immediate area and displayed them on his HUD.
  30.     “Finally, an excuse to get out of that sardine can,” he heard his friend grumble over the back radio.
  31.     “I hear that, Baker. Watch your ass out there. They have us going pretty deep into the asteroid field, and I don't want to have to engrave 'killed by a rock' on your tombstone.”
  32.     Jaeger watched as two more fighters left the hangar, setting off on a different route, their afterburners flaring for a second or two before they coasted off into the blackness. Hanging in front of him was a giant wall of tumbling ice and rock that seemed to extend infinitely in every direction. Oort clouds were truly massive spheres of rock, ice, and debris that orbited a star at the extreme limits of its gravitational pull. Their boundaries were fuzzy at best, and the fleet was currently suitably far enough away that the danger of impacts was minimized. Bugs loved asteroid fields, they infested them like cockroaches, using the natural cover that they provided to launch attacks on planets further inside the system. Heat signatures this far out probably meant that Bugs were setting up shop here, likely scouts for a hive ship that was hidden somewhere in the cloud. The system was unmapped, but anything that the Bugs could use as a staging point to push further into Coalition space had to be checked out and cleared.
  33.     “Let's give it a three-second burn on my mark,” Jaeger said, “three...two...one...hit the gas.”
  34.     The two vessels accelerated in unison, the G-forces pressing Jaeger into his seat. After three seconds, the acceleration ceased, the fighters letting the momentum carry them forward. There was no air resistance in space, nothing to slow them down. If an object started to move, then it wouldn't stop until force was applied, or it encountered an obstacle. It was even possible to gain or lose momentum without wasting fuel by using gravitational assists, although they were currently too far out from the solar system to have to contend with planets.
  35.     The cloud looked like dust from this distance, but when he enhanced the image with his visor, Jaeger could see the individual rocks and balls of ice as they tumbled lazily through space. Some of them were barely larger than his own fighter, and some were the size of a mountain. It was so hard to judge distance and scale in space without using instruments, and the field of asteroids was dark, the system's sun too far away to provide much illumination at all. It was little more than a pinpoint in the distance, barely distinguishable from stars that were a thousand light years away.
  36.     The two fighters slowed their approach with bursts of gas from their forward thrusters as the asteroids ballooned in their field of view, becoming alarmingly large. Jaeger could see small fragments and particles of dust impacting on his canopy and making his hull shake. The vessels were designed to endure the rigors of combat, and so it wasn't too concerning, but they still needed to be careful and stay alert. It wouldn't do to get pancaked between two drifting hunks of rock the size of houses.
  37.     There was no clear limit to the asteroid field, but Jaeger was soon surrounded by larger rocks, his visor's optics doing their best to brighten the darkness and his flight computer tracking the nearby objects so as to warn him of any impending collisions.
  38.     “Radar is useless in here,” Baker muttered, “it's like tryin' to find a needle in a haystack.”
  39.     “You'd know all about haystacks, you hick,” Jaeger replied. Baker had a thick Southern accent, and everyone gave him shit for it.
  40.     “Switchin' to thermal,” Baker said, “not seeing anything...I really don't want to move deeper. It ain't a good idea if you ask me.”
  41.     “Well they didn't ask you, it's an order,” Jaeger said as he used his thrusters to inch forward. “Stay on my six and keep an eye out for movement, you know how sneaky these Bugs can be.”
  42.     “Considerin' I got more confirmed kills than you, 'Bullseye', I sure do.”
  43.     Jaeger kept one eye on his sensors as they moved deeper into the cloud, following the route that had been planned out by command. The problem with fighting Bugs was that no two colonies were ever alike. Sure, they shared certain basic tenets and design principles, but the rate at which they adapted to their new environments and their willingness to mutate their own bodies meant that you could never accurately predict what you'd be facing off against. Fortunately, their violent xenophobia extended to their own kind too, different colonies never cooperated or shared tactical information between one another. It was a good job too, or the UNN would never be able to win the arms race that would ensue.
  44.     “Hang on,” Baker said, “I got somethin' on the scope. It's a heat source, three o'clock high, hard to gauge the distance in this soup.”
  45.     “I got it,” Jaeger replied, his HUD showing a red blip amongst the ghostly green outlines of the nearby asteroids. “It's faint, might be a critter trying to mask its engine signature.” He switched radio channels and put a call through to the Rorke. “This is Bullseye, we've picked up a heat signature, requesting instructions.”
  46.     Mission control came through with a hiss of static, the woman's voice crackling in his earpiece.
  47.     “Roger that, Bullseye, marking your location. Your orders are to proceed and investigate.”
  48.     “That's a solid copy mission control, proceeding deeper...”
  49.     He flipped to the back channel again, relaying the instructions to Baker.
  50.     “Control says we should check it out.”
  51.     “Fuck. Oh well, ladies first.”
  52.     Jaeger took point and drifted towards the faint heat source, maneuvering around obstacles with short bursts from his thrusters, the signal growing steadily weaker. He was almost certain by now that it was a cooling engine. Something had probably moved shortly before their arrival, and the heat that it had generated was slowly dissipating into space.
  53.     “I got a bad feeling about this,” he said, “weapons going hot.”
  54.     He flipped up the guard on his joystick that covered one of the fire buttons, and he felt a tremor run through the hull as a hatch on the back of the fighter opened up like a trap door. As well as long-range missiles and affixed cannons that could be used both in atmosphere and in space, there was also another weapon mounted on the FS-26 that could only be used in a vacuum. A large, belt-fed railgun extended from the hull on a flexible arm, making it look like the head of a stork. It was invaluable in a close quarters dogfight, able to pivot and track independently of the fighter. A targeting reticle appeared on Jaeger's HUD as the weapon came online. It was primarily computer controlled, but UNN regulations required a human to pull the trigger...or at least a sapient creature.
  55.     As they neared the source of the signature and came upon a large asteroid, their railguns turning this way and that like curious geese as they scanned for targets, the blip on the radar completely vanished.
  56.     “Heads up,” Baker muttered, “it's gone dark.”
  57.     “Be ready, it was around this asteroid somewhere...”
  58.     They drifted slowly around the large, irregular hunk of rock, the scanners highlighting every contour on its pockmarked surface with a green wireframe. It was like orbiting a very small moon.
  59.     “Picking up traces of methane,” Baker said, “something was definitely here. I'm gonna call it in.”
  60.     “Contact! Contact!”
  61.     Something that looked like a cross between a gigantic roach and a shrimp climbed out of one of the many impact craters on several pairs of jointed legs. It was huge, at least as large as their fighters if not slightly larger, its segmented body encased within an iridescent shell that glittered in shades of blue and green. Its back was covered in ablative plates that looked like a suit of medieval armor, clearly artificial in nature, probably bolted onto its living body after the thing had matured.
  62.     The Betelgeusians used a combination of organic and artificial technology, and even their spaceships were living entities. There was no doubt a Bug pilot encased somewhere inside, its lanky body hooked directly into the craft's nervous system, surrounded on all sides by exposed meat as it drove the thing around like a puppet. Rather than viewports or a canopy, the craft had dozens of glistening, compound eyes that served as cameras for the occupant.
  63.     This one wasn't flying, it was walking along the surface of the asteroid, perhaps using modified landing gear as actual legs. There was a puff of dust, and a flare of green flame as the thing lifted off, tucking its many limbs beneath its body and pivoting to face its adversaries.
  64.     Its reaction speed was so quick that by the time the railguns began to fire, there were already bolts of crackling plasma hurtling towards the fighters. Beneath what could only be described as the bulbous head of the Bug ship were housed twin plasma cannons, lighting up its grotesque eyes and its jutting sensory antennae with flashes of green light as they unloaded at the enemy.
  65.     Jaeger took evasive action, the computer keeping the railgun locked onto the target even as his vessel rolled and tilted, the barrel as steady as a gyroscope. Keeping track of the different in-picture displays and camera views while the world spun around him would have been horribly disorienting, but this was what the pilots had trained for, frantic zero-G combat was their domain.
  66.     His vessel rocked as one of the high-velocity, magnetically-contained balls of green plasma splashed against his wing, arcing across its surface like electricity as the fighter's armor did its best to dissipate the heat and energy over a larger area. Still, the intensely hot plasma burned an ugly, black smear on the wing like someone had taken a giant cutting torch to it, the ferrite stealth coating slagging and melting away.
  67.     The barrel of the railgun rocked on its arm with every shot, rings of electromagnets sending tungsten slugs the size of beer bottles hurtling towards the target at a significant percentage of light speed. They were dumb-rounds, nothing more than pieces of shaped metal, but they impacted the asteroid like tiny meteors and blasted basketball-sized craters in the rock as they transferred their kinetic energy.
  68.     Everything was spinning. His fighter was spinning, the target was spinning, the asteroids around them were spinning. Jaeger's only point of reference was the indicator on his HUD that let him know which direction was up.
  69.     Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as up and down in space. The Galaxy was a flat disk with a swollen core, kind of like a celestial fried egg, except a hundred thousand light-years across. One's position could be calculated relative to it by mapping the visible stars, ensuring that UNN ships didn't end up at wildly different inclinations when they arrived in the same spot.
  70.     The thrusters flared as he righted himself, and he watched as Baker loosed one of his missiles, the projectile shooting puffs of gas from nozzles on its nose and tail to orient itself as it arced towards its target. The battle was close range, but in space, even close meant miles apart. The Bug ship moved to take evasive action, but it had taken some railgun hits, leaking what looked like pus or ichor from jagged tears in its hull as the jets of green flame down its right flank flickered.
  71.     There was a flash of light, and then all that was left of the Bug ship was a cloud of expanding debris, Jaeger zooming in on the fragments of torn flesh and bent metal as they flew apart. It looked like a smear on a windshield.
  72.     “Splash one,” he heard Baker shout over the radio. “Looks like another notch on my belt, Bullseye. Are you even trying?”
  73.     He sounded out of breath, as was Jaeger. They were both rattled by the sudden appearance of this new enemy, but a little humor helped diffuse the tension.
  74.     “Control this is Bullseye,” Jaeger said over the comms, “confirmed one bogey down. Kill goes to Scorch, as per usual. Where there's one Bug, more are never far, so I'd bet my wings that we've got more of them incoming. Please advise.”
  75.     “Head back to the fleet, Bullseye. Redirecting Boomer and Scratcher to assist.”
  76.     He spun his fighter, aiming the nose back towards the edge of the asteroid field, preparing to gun the engine.
  77.     “Let's get out of here, Baker. Make sure your flight assist is on, I don't want to be here any longer than necessary.”
  78.     “Just like a game of billiards,” Baker chuckled, “except the goal is 'not' to hit the other balls...”
  79.     Jaeger typed in a few commands on a touch screen that was mounted on his console, then watched as the flight computer calculated the most efficient path through the asteroids ahead of him, appearing on his HUD as a wireframe tube that snaked between the obstacles. He gripped the joysticks in his hands, his finger hovering over the throttle, excitement welling in his chest.
  80.     “I'm keyed in,” Baker said. “This flight path is going to keep shifting, nothing in this cloud of shit is stationary.”
  81.     “Wouldn't be any fun otherwise.”
  82.     Jaeger gave the throttle a short squeeze, his engine flaring as it propelled him forwards, crushing him into his padded seat. The computer couldn't fly the plane for him, but it could make small corrections and assist him with short bursts from the thrusters, the massive asteroids racing past as he accelerated. When he had gained enough speed, he coasted, using his thrusters to pitch and yaw, quick burns from the main engine helping him to change direction. It was like threading a needle in zero-G. He not only had to account for the usual pitch, roll, and yaw that one would have to contend with during atmospheric flight, but also lateral movements that were only possible in space.
  83.     He arced around the obstacles, his engine flashing almost imperceptibly, nozzles all over the chassis of the fighter blowing puffs of gas into space to keep him steady and to prevent him from drifting with minute corrections. A warning light flared on his HUD, and the computer highlighted an incoming piece of debris in red, along with its trajectory. Jaeger rolled the fighter with only seconds to spare, the chunk of rock zipping past his wing like a bullet, so close that he swore he could almost reach out and touch it.
  84.     The flight path was constantly shifting to account for the movements of the drifting asteroids, and it suddenly flickered as the computer tried to calculate a new route, a rock the size of a battleship blocking his way as it drifted into his path. It bumped a smaller rock out of its way like a celestial game of curling, the asteroid tumbling end over end as it headed straight for him. Jaeger wasted no time, pivoting so that his nose was facing directly upwards, watching the incoming obstacle through the cameras mounted on the underside of his fighter as he put his belly towards it. He gunned the engine, the vessel rising out of the asteroid's path, barreling through his exhaust trail like a rolling boulder.
  85.     Acting quickly, Jaeger engaged his forward thrusters. He shed his upward momentum and righted himself, even as the laws of physics carried him forwards. The flight path twitched for a moment and then became solid again, directing him through a narrow gap between two large bodies. He didn't have time to question it, trusting the computer's cold logic to see him through as he angled his nose towards the target, another controlled burn from his main engine sending him careening onwards.
  86.     “Contacts on our six,” he heard Baker shout, his voice strained as he endured the wild acceleration.
  87.     Jaeger cursed, setting his railgun to point behind the fighter, an overlay showing the view from its camera in the corner of his visor. Multitasking was one thing, but maneuvering a craft traveling at a thousand knots through an asteroid field while also trying to shoot behind you was quite another.
  88.     He could make out Baker's fighter, tagged with his callsign as it followed behind, its flight computer sending it along a slightly different route. Behind it were three contacts, outlined in red as they burned towards the pair. More Bug ships, probably drawn by the carcass of their dead comrade. Their engines flared with green flame as they dodged and weaved through the debris, their compound eyes fixed on their prey.
  89.     One of them launched a torpedo that had been clasped in its legs, the grotesque limbs unfurling as the metallic tube rocketed towards Baker. He popped his flares, panels on the tail of his fighter opening like airbrakes to release a stream of decoys, bright balls of light trailing smoke behind them as they made a pattern that looked like the wings of an angel.
  90.     The torpedo veered towards them, then exploded into a bright ball of green light, the plasma contained within slagging the asteroids around it as it spread outwards in a crackling sphere. Baker stayed ahead of the energy wave, and the three Bug vessels appeared behind him as the cloud dissipated, the blast actually clearing the way for them.
  91.     One of them loosed a burst of plasma fire, trailing through space like tracer rounds, missing him by a hair as he evaded it.
  92.     “God damn it,” Jaeger muttered under his breath. If he left Baker to fend for himself, he'd be toast. “Computer, safety off,” he said as he gripped the sticks and steeled himself for a high-G maneuver. A warning symbol flashed, confirming that the safety limits had been bypassed and that the fighter could now make maneuvers in excess of ten Gs. If he wasn't careful, he might black out, sending his craft smashing into an asteroid. If he lost control, the stresses could even liquefy his innards.
  93.     “Hang on buddy, I'm coming for you,” he announced as he yanked the stick and hit the throttle. His fighter flipped upside-down on its axis, facing backwards towards the incoming Bug ships, the engine making the hull shake as he shed velocity. He was pressed deep into his seat, darkness eating at the corners of his vision. His suit tightened around his legs like a tourniquet, forcing more blood to his head to keep him conscious. He felt like he couldn't breathe, the icon on his HUD flashing orange and then red as it counted up. Six Gs, seven, eight, nine...
  94.     Finally, his vision began to clear, the pain in his chest abating as he focused his attention on the enemy fighters. He was now pointed directly at them, gaining speed as he roared towards them. The railgun tracked the targets, the reticle leading them as it calculated their positions. Jaeger squeezed the trigger, the weapon spewing tungsten slugs at the formation of fighters. He engaged his internal cannon too, a hatch to the left of his cockpit popping open, the twenty-five-millimeter gatling gun spooling for a second before it began to fire. It didn't have the velocity of a railgun, and it used conventional ammunition, but if he managed to land a hit, then it would do the job just as well. It sent an almost unbroken line of orange trails streaming towards the targets, more intended to scatter them than to actually disable them.
  95.     The Bugs broke their formation, shooting off in different directions as Jaeger dodged past a stray chunk of rock that had been displaced by the torpedo. His railgun tracked the nearest target, pivoting on its flexible arm to stay locked on, the Bug vessel shuddering as it took some hits. The high-velocity slugs tore straight through it like a hot knife through butter, the craft faltering and starting to drift as it lost control, crashing into a nearby asteroid and exploding into a flash of plasma and methane propellant.
  96.     One of them stayed on Baker, the second attempting to evade. Jaeger braced himself for another maneuver, a combination of his main engine and the thrusters on the underside of his fighter simulating banking as he turned, the Gs pressing down on him like there was an elephant standing on his shoulders. He tried to get a missile lock on the fleeing Bug ship, the railgun taking pot shots as it dodged and weaved through the asteroids. The computer finally managed to get a solid lock, and he thumbed the release, a missile flaring as it launched from beneath his wing and sped off into the distance.
  97.     It shadowed the escaping Bug, even as the giant insect rolled and twisted between the chunks of ice and rock, slowly gaining ground on the larger and less agile target. Once it was in range, the warhead exploded, sending out a spray of deadly shrapnel that eviscerated the Betelgeusian ship. It lost power, drifting away into the asteroid field as its engines sputtered and flickered, bodily fluids trailing behind it as they leaked from its perforated hull.
  98.     “Could use a little help here,” he heard Baker say through gritted teeth, he sounded like he was in trouble.
  99.     Jaeger endured another tight turn, coming back around to target the remaining craft. It was still on Baker's tail, harrying him with volleys of plasma as the pair weaved between the asteroids, coming in and out of view. Baker's railgun was firing behind him, aiming between the fighter's twin tail fins. He scored a hit, Jaeger watching as the impact rocked the Bug vessel, ichor trailing from the wound. Still, the Bug pursued him relentlessly, Jaeger beginning to doubt that he could get into range of it in time to save his friend.
  100.     Just then, a twinkling beam of neon-green light appeared to spear the Bug ship. It was barely visible, ephemeral, glittering against the darkness of space. The metal armor of the organic craft melted like it was being burned by a cutting torch, glowing with heat as the sparkling beam seemed to sear through it. The beam held on the Bug ship until it penetrated deep enough to hit something flammable, the target exploding into a bright ball of fire, and then vanished as quickly as it had come.
  101.     Baker was clear, speeding away, and Jaeger scrutinized his display as he scanned the darkness for the source of the light. That had looked like someone flashing a laser pointer, could it be some kind of laser weapon? No ship in the fleet used such a device to his knowledge, their range made them useless at the distances that UNN ships usually engaged at. They would also scatter in an atmosphere, severely diminishing their lethality beyond a few feet.
  102.     “Thanks for watching my back there, Bullseye, that was a hell of a shot.”
  103.     “That wasn't me,” he replied, turning about and making for the edge of the asteroid field. As curious as he was, he didn't want to be sitting around scanning when more Bugs showed up.
  104.     “If it wasn't you, then who was it?”
  105.     “I don't know, it looked like some kind of laser.”
  106.     The radar was next to useless, it was impossible to distinguish ships from random pieces of rock. But if something had been firing off lasers, then it should show up on the thermal scans. He kept an eye on the display as he maneuvered between the asteroids, hoping that he could find something before he went out of range. There! A heat signature, the red blip appearing on his HUD. He turned his head and zoomed in on the area of space. He couldn't see anything, just blackness.
  107.     As he stared, there was a flurry of colored lights. They flashed in a wave, blues and purples moving from left to right like a neon sign outside a nightclub. It illuminated something metallic, a ship maybe, but it was so far away and so faint that he couldn't get a good idea of its size or shape.
  108.     “What the hell is...”
  109.     He couldn't keep his eyes on it, he had to focus on the asteroids that were currently flying at his face. Hoping that the mysterious weapon didn't start firing at him too, he followed Baker to the edge of the Oort cloud. When they were clear of the asteroids, the reinforcements appeared, joining them in formation as they made their way back to the Rorke.
  110.     “You guys took your sweet time,” Baker complained, “you missed the fight.”
  111.     “Don't tell me that Bullseye actually hit something,” one of the other pilots said, it sounded like Boomer.
  112.     “He saved my ass is what he did.”
  113.     “This time I'm only about seventy-five percent responsible for saving Baker's ass,” Jaeger replied. “There was something out there, something I've never seen before.”
  114.     “What are you talking about?” Boomer asked. “Some kind of new Bug design?” 
  115.     “Well, that too, yeah. But there was a ship out there, colorful, I don't know how to describe it. Something fired a laser weapon that destroyed the last Bug ship that was tailing Scorch, melted through it like a blowtorch. I saw the beam hold on it for a few seconds, and then it vanished. I picked up a thermal, but all I could see were these weird, flashing lights.”
  116.     “Who uses laser weapons?” Scratcher asked skeptically.
  117.     “Nobody that I know of,” Jaeger replied. “Maybe UNNI is testing something new out here?”
  118.     “The Ninnies?” Baker added, “no way. If anything, a laser weapon sounds like a downgrade over what we already use.”
  119.     “Maybe they found a new way to focus the lens or something?” Boomer suggested, but he didn't sound very convinced.
  120.     “When we get back to the carrier, I'll see if my cameras picked anything up,” Jaeger said. “If I saw it, then something must have shown up on the video feed.”
  121.  
  122. CHAPTER 2: FIRST CONTACT PROTOCOLS
  123.    
  124.     “You wanted to see me, Captain?” Jaeger asked, standing to attention as he stepped through the automatic door into the briefing room. Before him, Captain Fielding of the Rorke and several other high-ranking personnel were sat around a circular table, a hologram of the asteroid field projecting from its center. Fielding gestured for the pilot to be at ease, his hand gloved in the same pristine white as his uniform, Jaeger relaxing as he waited for further instructions. A few of the other attendants were also dressed in white, indicating that they were the captains of some of the support ships. Others were wearing the standard Navy blue, or the yellow of the engineering corps.
  125.     “We've read your report concerning the incident in the Oort cloud, Lieutenant Jaeger,” Fielding began. “I wondered if you might give us a more...personal account of what you saw.”
  126.     “Of course Captain,” he replied. He proceeded to go over the details of everything that he had seen in the asteroid field, the glittering green laser that had burned through the Bug vessel, the flashing colors in hues of blue and purple. When he was done, he glanced nervously around the table, hoping that they weren't about to ground him for a psych evaluation.
  127.     The Captain tapped at a touchpad that was embedded in the table, and then the hologram shifted, showing a three-dimensional image of one of the Bug ships.
  128.     “Fortunately, your railgun's targeting optics were tracking the enemy vessel when the laser hit it,” Fielding said. “Watch closely.” He advanced the recording frame by frame, everyone leaning in as they concentrated on the flickering video. They gasped and muttered as the feed suddenly warped, corruption and digital artifacts tearing up the recording. “The green beam that you claim to have seen isn't visible on the camera. However, the light that it emitted seems to have damaged the recording. If we advance the footage, we can clearly see where it impacts the dorsal armor of the Betelgeusian fighter and begins to melt through it...here.”
  129.     He paused the video again, then zoomed in on a spot on the metallic armor. It was blurry and pixelated. The target had been far away, and the resolution wasn't great, but Jaeger could clearly make out an orange glow. The Captain advanced the video by another few frames, the armor slagging and becoming molten as the laser burned through it. A murmur passed around the table, a few of them glancing at Jaeger. They had probably been doubting his field report.
  130.     “Chief Engineer Campbell, what can you tell us about this weapon?” the Captain asked as he gestured to a man wearing yellow overalls. The engineer stood, scrutinizing the still picture for a few more moments.
  131.     “You said that the beam was green?” he asked, directing the question towards Jaeger who nodded in response. “In that case, my guess would be a very high wattage neodymium laser, continuous rather than pulsed it looks like. We use these lasers ourselves, mostly for medical purposes and for laser targeting equipment, but nothing this powerful.”
  132.     “So we have this technology?” a man wearing blue who was sitting across from him asked.
  133.     “Yes,” Campbell continued, “but it's not very effective as a weapon. Lasers have some value for point defense applications, but generally speaking, the range at which most fleet engagements take place renders them next to useless for offensive purposes. The problem with lasers is that they tend to scatter, the beam is dispersed as it passes through a medium and encounters microscopic particles. Let's say you fire a laser beam in an atmosphere, every droplet of water and mote of dust that it encounters is going to refract the light, which dramatically reduces the amount of photons that actually reach their target. That results in a huge damage falloff, and even in the vacuum of space, there's plenty of gas and dust particles that can interrupt the beam. That's the only reason that a laser beam is ever visible, because of scattered light that's being flung out of the beam by collisions. One solution is to increase the power of the laser so that even with scattering, the light that reaches the target is still enough to be lethal. But as the range and the density of the medium increases, so too do the power requirements. It's just not an efficient weapon.”
  134.     “This one seems to be working pretty well,” the man added.
  135.     “It's probably wasting an enormous amount of energy,” the engineer shot back.
  136.     “If I could have your attention again, gentlemen?” Fielding asked. He moved his hand back to the touch screen, the display shifting once more. Jaeger recognized this new recording as the view from his helmet, looking back over his shoulder as he zoomed in on the area of space where he had picked up the heat signature. He waited with bated breath for the flash of purple light, hoping against hope that it had been in a spectrum that the cameras could capture, unlike the laser beam.
  137.     It was faint, barely larger than a fingernail at such extreme range, but the flurry of colored lights was clearly visible.
  138.     “What the hell is that?” Campbell asked. “Can you enhance it, Captain?”
  139.     Fielding blew up the picture, and again the low resolution meant that the resulting image was blurry and pixelated, then he paused the footage as the blue light appeared. It was illuminating the hull of the ship around it, not by much, but enough to make out a vague shape. He played the video in slow motion, a light like a strobe moving from left to right in a wave, passing through different hues of azure and magenta.
  140.     “Captain, if I may?” Campbell asked. Fielding nodded, stepping away from the touchpad as the engineer took his place. “If we can take snapshots of the footage and overlay them,” he began, “then we should be able to...”
  141.     Jaeger watched as Campbell manipulated the footage, taking screenshots and overlaying them one on top of the other as the wave of light passed along the side of the vessel. What resulted was a single view with the entire band illuminated, along with the rough outline of the ship itself, the light reflecting off the hull.
  142.     “What kind of ship is that?” one of the other captains mused, leaning across the table to get a closer look.
  143.     “I've never seen anything like it,” Campbell replied. “The UNN has no ships with a hull shaped like that to my knowledge.”
  144.     It was seen side-on, and so the exact composition of the wings was uncertain, but the shape of the hull was unlike anything that Jaeger had seen before. It was curved and smooth, almost teardrop-shaped, while UNN ships of that size were usually blockier and more angular. He couldn't make out any details beyond the vague outline, and the light seemed to be emitted by some kind of panel that was mounted along the flank of the vessel. Why would a ship have a need for something like that? Decoration? Communication?
  145.     “What's the name of this system again?” the Captain asked, “I can never remember these damned numbers...”
  146.     “We're currently on the outskirts of HD-217107, roughly sixty-four light-years from Earth,” one of the men sitting at the table volunteered.
  147.     “Out in the sticks,” Fielding grumbled. “Coalition space is a bubble about a hundred light years across, and we're right on the edge of it. Has this system been surveyed for habitable planets?” He looked around the table as he waited for a reply, but nobody had an answer for him. Instead, he hunched over his touch screen, spending a minute or two digging through files. “Ah, here we are,” he said as he stood up straight again. “Two gas giants detected, no terrestrial planets.”
  148.     “It's possible that the astronomers missed something,” Campbell suggested. “At this range, most planets are detected using transit photometry, measuring the light of a star to see if a planet passes in front of it. Usually, when they detect something the size of a terrestrial planet, they send a survey vessel to check it out. If they only picked up gas giants here, and no rocky planets, then they probably struck it off as a potential colony system.”
  149.     “Or that these guys are from another system entirely,” one of the captains added. “Should we enact first contact protocols?”
  150.     Fielding considered for a moment. First contact protocols affected the entire fleet, it wasn't an order to be given lightly. When operating in what might well be alien territory, measures had to be taken to avoid potential misunderstandings and confrontations. The last thing they needed was a war on two fronts. That said, the Betelgeusians were also in the system, and getting shot out of the sky by some weird variation of Bug ship because you couldn't get a positive ID on it wasn't much better.
  151.     “I don't think we have a choice,” he finally replied. “Enact first contact protocols across the fleet. Let's hope that this goes better than first contact with the Borealans...”
  152.     Jaeger looked about the table, everyone seemed just as nervous as he currently felt. First contact protocols meant that nobody could fire at an unidentified vessel unless they were first fired upon. If hostile action was taken against UNN ships, such as a shot across the bow or a target lock, then they were expected to give way and retreat to a safe distance. Absolutely no aggressive measures were to be taken against alien ships unless they were confirmed hostile. The problem was that if someone shot at you, you might not get the chance to shoot back. Jaeger also knew that they would have to watch that fucking video again...
  153.     “You're all dismissed,” Fielding said, the hologram flickering off as he left the table. “Get back to your respective vessels and spread the word, FCP is in full effect. I don't want a single round fired unless you can get a positive ID on a Bug ship, and by positive I mean ironclad. There's a good chance that we're trespassing in someone else's airspace right now.”
  154.     There was a chorus of affirmations, and then everyone began to file out of the room. Fielding stopped beside Jaeger as he passed by, placing a gloved hand on his shoulder.
  155.     “I want your squadron out on another patrol as soon as your fighters are spaceworthy again,” he said. “If we got a look at them, then these aliens have probably gotten a good look at you too, which means they'll likely recognize an FS-26 the next time they see one. If they're out here hunting Bugs the same as we are, then we might have a potential ally here. Make sure the next time you boys meet one, everything goes down smoothly.”
  156.     “Yes Sir,” Jaeger replied with a salute.
  157.    
  158. ***
  159.    
  160.     The sound of chair legs squealing against the deck was deafening as Jaeger took a seat beside Scratcher, Baker sitting down next to him as they joined the other three hundred or so crew members who were waiting for the presentation to begin. The mess hall had been cleared, all of the tables had been pushed out of the way, and someone had brought in a projector that had been set up at the front of the expansive room. Above their heads was a maze of criss-crossing pipes, wires, and air ducts that reminded Jaeger that he was in a giant tin can. As large as the carrier was, over a thousand feet long and with a mass of a hundred thousand tons, it somehow still managed to feel cramped. Along with the hangar, the mess was one of the largest rooms on the vessel. As many people as there were crammed inside it, this was only a tiny fraction of the six thousand strong crew compliment, the others would be cycled in and out as their duties allowed for it. Jaeger could see blue and yellow uniforms, humans and towering Krell, even a handful of feline Borealans who looked even more surly than usual.
  161.     The sound of a hundred muttered conversations died down as an executive officer walked in and stood to attention before them.
  162.     “Quiet down! As many of you know, Captain Fielding has enacted first contact protocols. This isn't a situation that any of us expected to be in, but it's crucial that every single one of you understands exactly what it means, and what your responsibilities are.”
  163.     He gave the pack of six Borealans a pointed look, their furry ears twitching with irritation. The aliens didn't make good pilots, but they were formidable shock troopers, boasting superhuman strength and resilience. They had claws like meat hooks on their fingers, their eight-foot frames cloaked in fuzzy fur and muscle, old scars visible on their faces and exposed forearms. There were always 'mad cats' on carriers, just in case they were tasked with boarding an enemy ship or leading a landing party. They were about as sociable and as well adjusted as their appearance suggested.
  164.     “Now you're all going to watch the video,” he continued, a groan passing through the crowd of personnel. “Don't give me that, I know half of you have probably forgotten most of this shit by now. Pay attention, and let's all do our best to avoid accidentally starting an interstellar war, shall we?”
  165.     He stepped aside and took a seat at the front, examining the touchpad that he was holding for a moment before pressing a button on it. The projector came to life, a device about the size and shape of an ammo crate projecting a hologram into the air above it, filling the available space. The image quality didn't even come close to that of an actual monitor, it was washed out and slightly transparent, but it was big enough that everyone in the room could see it clearly. There was a hiss as the built-in speakers came online, and then the fuzzy cloud of colors took shape, the giant image of a man in a blue uniform shown from the chest-up appearing before them. There was a line of white text superimposed across the center of the picture, 'First Contact: What You Need to Know'.
  166.     “The Galaxy is a big place,” the presenter began, the camera zooming out to follow him as he strolled across a terrible bridge set with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Nobody truly knows what lies out there beyond the stars,” he continued as he leaned on a nearby console, actors playing the roles of bridge crew randomly pushing buttons behind him. “But we can take a few simple precautions to ensure that if we do come across something alien and unknown, we can minimize the potential risks.”
  167.     “Sir,” one of the women who was manning a flimsy approximation of a comms station began, “we're picking up an unknown vessel in the system!”
  168.     “An unknown ship,” the presenter continued as he addressed the audience, pausing for dramatic effect. “We need FCP, first contact protocols!”
  169.     “But what are first contact protocols?” another of the phony bridge crew asked, walking in awkwardly from out of frame and eliciting stifled laughter from the room.
  170.     “I'm glad you asked,” the presenter replied, “FCP is something that we all need to understand when operating in uncharted space. There are more stars in the Galaxy than there are grains of sand on every one of Earth's beaches combined.”
  171.     “That's a lot of stars!” the crewman added, his stilted performance causing another wave of snickering to pass through the mess hall.
  172.     “Indeed it is. Around each one of those stars, there might be planets, planets which might harbor complex life. Odds are that there are thousands, even tens of thousands of advanced civilizations in our own backyard, and the further we venture into space, the more the odds of us encountering them increase. They might be friendly, like our allies the Krell.”
  173.     A still image of a Krell appeared on the hologram, the giant reptile sharing an Olympic swimming pool with its human neighbors, cruising along one of the lanes with only its snout and the hump of its armored back protruding from the water like a giant crocodile. One of the Krell in the audience rumbled happily, the sound making Jaeger's bones vibrate. Whether he appreciated the positive portrayal of his race, or if he just recognized that there was another Krell on the display was unclear.
  174.     “Or...they might not be so friendly.”
  175.     This time a picture of a Betelgeusian drone appeared on the display, a bipedal insect about five feet in height, its vaguely humanoid body sheathed in a tough exoskeleton that shone in iridescent hues of blue and green. It had two pairs of arms, the upper pair longer and thicker than the secondary pair, which protruded from about where the ribs would have been on a person. Its thorax seemed to be split into two bulging segments, and there was layered armor covering all of its joints, whether artificial or natural in origin was hard to tell. The face was almost featureless, the head round and smooth. It had two large, compound eyes that glittered in the light, and a set of cutting mandibles where the mouth would have been. Sprouting from its forehead was an ornate antler or horn, branching off almost like the limbs of a tree.
  176.     Nobody needed to be reminded why the Coalition wasn't on friendly terms with the Betelgeusians, the alliance had been assembled for the sole purpose of stopping their incursions into civilized systems.
  177.     “The most important task when interacting with an unknown species is to avoid confrontation,” the presenter said, turning to the comms operator again as if anticipating her next line.
  178.     “The unidentified vessel is locking onto us!” she exclaimed, “take evasive action!”
  179.     “Delay that order,” the presenter said with a dramatic wave of his hand, turning back towards the audience once again. “Locking might not be a hostile action, they may simply be targeting us with their sensors in an effort to find out what we are. Always keep in mind that in their neck of the woods, it's 'we' who are the aliens. Always err on the side of caution, and don't assume hostile intent without good reason.”
  180.     “Their weapons are powering up, they're bringing their forward guns into range!” the operator continued.
  181.     “Don't act rashly!” the presenter warned. “Territorial behavior is a natural response in this situation, after all, how would you like it if someone came into your home uninvited? If the aliens show signs of aggression, back down, deescalate the situation. Let them know that you didn't travel across the stars to start a fight with them. If you must retreat, then retreat. The only circumstance that permits you to fire on an unidentified vessel while FPC is active is if you are being actively engaged. Always remember the three Ds,” he added as the words scrolled across the shot one by one. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”
  182.     “The vessel is signaling us,” the comms officer said, and what followed was a distorted voice listing off nonsense words that were intended to represent an alien transmission. The presenter started to speak again, pointing to his ear.
  183.     “Communicating with an unknown species will be difficult, and it may even be impossible. What if they see in different wavelengths of light than we do, what if they hear at different frequencies? What if they're entirely deaf, and they communicate only through pheromones? They may be incapable of speech, or their concept of communication may have no equivalent in our experience. They won't understand common gestures and non-verbal communication either. Shaking your head to indicate 'no' or waving as a greeting might seem self-explanatory to you, but it won't be to them! It might even frighten or startle them, so try not to make any sudden moves or violent gestures.”
  184.     “They want to come aboard, Sir,” the woman added. “What should we do?”
  185.     “If you manage to reach this stage, it will likely be under the supervision of your ship's captain, but let's assume for the sake of this demonstration that you have to make these decisions yourselves. Perhaps you're exploring an uncharted planet, and you've encountered sentient natives...”
  186.     The bridge set vanished as the video cut to a forest scene, clearly not an alien jungle, but a national park on Earth. A group of Marines in black combat armor walked into the flat shot from the right, the leader holding up his fist and indicating for the rest to stop. From the trees to the left emerged what looked like a B-movie alien, or something from a low-budget TV show. It held its arms out in front of it as it took exaggerated steps towards the soldiers, the mess hall erupting with laughter. The XO stood and turned to look back at them angrily, putting his finger to his lips as he gestured for the crew to be quiet.
  187.     One of the Marines raised his rifle and pointed it at the creature, but then the presenter appeared once again, leaping out from the background with almost comedic timing and standing between the two.
  188.     “Stop! Just like in space, never assume that actions are hostile without good reason. If an alien attempts to invade your personal space, back away. If you can't back away, push it back gently and make it obvious that you don't want to be touched. Remember the three Ds,” the presenter repeated as he held up three fingers and counted off. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”
  189.     The Marine demonstrated, letting his rifle hang from its sling as the monster approached. He placed his hand on the alien's chest, the other resting on his sidearm holster, gently pushing it back. After a couple of pushes, the pretend alien got the picture, keeping its distance. Jaeger tried to imagine someone trying that maneuver with a Borealan, they'd probably lose the arm...
  190.     “If the alien becomes hostile, retreat if you're reasonably able to do so, and avoid responding with violence. You're on his turf, keep that in mind.”
  191.     The fictional alien advanced, waving its arms aggressively, and the squad of Marines began to retreat as they kept their rifles trained on it.
  192.     “As UNN personnel, you are representing your entire species, so do your best to make that first impression a good one!”
  193.     The forest scene faded out, and this time it was replaced with a wall of text listing off regulations and rules of engagement.
  194.     “Now we will review the rules of engagement and the clauses of the UN charter,” the disembodied voice of the presenter said. Another wave of groaning passed through the room, this time the XO was the only one who was laughing to himself.
  195.  
  196. ***
  197.  
  198.     “I thought that fucking video would never end,” Baker groaned, walking beside Jaeger as they filed out of the mess hall along with the other personnel.
  199.     “I see why they like to show it to us,” Jaeger said, dodging around a passing engineer who was hurrying off in the other direction along the cramped corridor. “ROE generally goes out the window when you're fighting Bugs. They don't surrender, they don't have anything like the Geneva Conventions, they don't shy away from using chemical and biological weapons. I guess some of the guys need a refresher, reminds them that there are supposed to be rules in war, even if they're only on paper most of the time.”
  200.     “Some Bugs surrender,” Baker replied with a shrug. “You hear about what happened on Jarilo?”
  201.     “Oh yeah. They caught a colony early, and the roaches gave up, right?”
  202.     “That's what I heard, yeah. Don't know the details, it's all been very hush-hush. But of course, rumor gets around.”
  203.     “Well, I've never heard of a Bug giving up. A drinking buddy of mine who's in the Marines told me that when he was deployed on Kruger III, he found a Bug on the battlefield after a CAS run that had been ripped in half at the waist. The main guns on those Penguins just chew up infantry. The thing had one arm left, and it was still trying to fire at him with a plasma pistol. They're not even sentient I don't think, no more than an ant or a termite.”
  204.     “So the brass really thinks we'll be meetin' aliens?” Baker asked skeptically, “I mean...even you ain't sure what you saw out there.”
  205.     “I know that I saw 'something', I'm just not sure what it was. Seems like they're serious about it though, this FCP shit is nothing to joke about, it really fucks us over. You know how fast Bugs react, sometimes the element of surprise is all you have. If you waste it scanning them, they're going to spin around and drill you a few new exhaust ports.”
  206.     The carrier was cavernous, the winding corridors and packed rooms stretching for literally miles. It was like being inside a giant submarine, and as huge as it was, everything still managed to feel claustrophobic. It was large enough that the bigger aliens like the Krell and the Borealans could get around. The ceilings were high enough that they didn't have to duck too low to avoid hitting their heads on pipes, and the passageways were wide enough that they could pass one another, but only barely. The Rorke was so large, and the crew were often stationed on it for so long, that it even had its own general store where they could buy things like snacks and drinks. Jaeger made a beeline for it, turning corners and passing innumerable side rooms. Every few feet there was a pressure door, intended to seal shut in the event of a decompression to prevent the whole ship from blowing all of its atmosphere into space. There were almost no bare surfaces in sight. The deck was covered in panels that opened up to grant access to internal systems, snaking wires and pipes decorated the walls and ceiling, miscellaneous electronics clinging to every available surface.
  207.     Jaeger hated it, it was like a giant, flying coffin. Yet it was the only way to see action as a fighter pilot. He had to endure the weeks or months of boredom and claustrophobia, just for those few hours of freedom. There was nothing like it, zipping through the emptiness at speeds that only a bullet could reach in atmosphere, with only his ship and his wits to rely on.
  208.     They came to a stop beside the line that had formed outside the store, Jaeger rummaging in his pocket for his tablet computer. He turned the handheld device on and tapped at the wafer-thin screen for a few moments, checking his account. When you were a dozen light years out from any civilized planet, you couldn't exactly access your bank account, and so the crew deposited their money into a Navy credit account for use during their deployment. He still had a fair amount left, he'd have to remember to top it up again next time they were in port. It would likely be several months yet. He couldn't imagine surviving one of these tours without enough sugar and nicotine to knock out a Polar.
  209.     “So what did they talk about in that meeting they dragged you off to?” Baker asked, leaning against the bulkhead with his hands in the pockets of his jumpsuit as he made small talk. “Or is it all classified?”
  210.     “They just wanted to hear my report in person,” Jaeger explained, keeping his eyes on his tablet as he thumbed through the messages. There was no internet connection on the carrier either. Even at the speed of light, a signal from the nearest inhabited planet would have taken decades to reach them this far out, but the vessel had an intranet that allowed the crew to communicate and access media.
  211.     “It's been five or six years since we made contact with the Borealans, right?” Baker continued. “And before that, it was about twenty-five years since we met the Bugs and the Krell.”
  212.     “And the Brokers,” Jaeger added.
  213.     “Yeah, right. So that's...what? Four alien species in thirty years? Doesn't that seem too low? Think about all the explorin' we've done since then, we've traveled about a hundred light-years from Earth in every direction and we ain't seen shit for years. Where's everyone hidin'? Didn't the guy in the video say that there were probably tens of thousands of sentient species in the galaxy?”
  214.     “I mean, we've found life,” Jaeger added with a shrug.
  215.     “Yeah, animals and moss and shit like that. Fish and bacteria, nothing smart.”
  216.     “The galaxy is a big place, I guess everyone is just spaced really far apart. That or the Bugs got to them before we did. We first encountered them at Betelgeuse, but nobody knows where they really come from. They could have colonized half the Galaxy for all we know.”
  217.     “Well I hope we meet some more aliens,” Baker grumbled, pulling his hand out of his pocket and idly scratching his nose. “I want to be there, y'know? I was one year old when we joined the Coalition, I had only just joined the Navy when we met the mad cats. It's a once in a lifetime thing, I want to see it happen.”
  218.     “Careful what you wish for,” Jaeger muttered, looking up from his tablet. “There's no guarantee that they'll be friendly.”
  219.     “Well they saved my ass, didn't they?”
  220.     “Yeah, but that might not be because they're on our side, they might just hate the Bugs more than they're worried about us.”
  221.     “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Baker stated confidently.
  222.     “You know that the guy who came up that saying was assassinated, right?”   
  223.    
  224. CHAPTER 3: HIVE AND GO SEEK
  225.  
  226.     “So how do we find a needle in a haystack?” Boomer asked, Jaeger glancing out of his canopy at the formation of three fighters that were lined up beside him. The dim glow from the nearby star reflected off their angular, stealthy hulls, like black glass when they caught the light. Only their canopies were illuminated, the glow of control panels and readouts lighting up the tiny pilots like someone holding a torch beneath their face while telling ghost stories around a campfire.
  227.     They had been tasked with scouring the Oort cloud for more Bugs, the Beewolf fighters small and light enough to cover a decent amount of ground. Pretty much every bird was in the air, split into groups of four and tasked with searching for contacts amongst the asteroids. They were skirting the wall of ice and rock right now, running long-range scans to pick up thermal radiation or any strange emissions.
  228.     “We got lucky last time,” Jaeger said, “we have a vague idea of where they might be hiding. Those fighters that we encountered were short-range, which means there's a hive ship somewhere nearby. Find the hive ship, kill it, and we kill the Bug fleet. They can't operate without it.”
  229.     When Bug fleets took to the stars to colonize a new planet, as was part of their life cycle, they did so in one or more hive ships that were roughly equivalent to a carrier. The massive organic ships were not only used to transport other vessels and personnel, but also the crucial supplies necessary for founding a new colony. A hive fleet was both dangerous and vulnerable at the same time. It was the stage of their life cycle when the Bugs were at their most aggressive, but at the same time, they were at their most exposed. Kill enough of the hive ships, and you would negate their ability to found a successful colony.
  230.     “Unless they've already colonized the inner planets and there are a billion of 'em further in-system,” Baker muttered.
  231.     “Not likely,” Jaeger said, “there'd be a lot more activity if that were the case. Besides, I heard that there aren't any habitable planets in this system, only a couple of gas giants.”
  232.     “Doesn't mean they can't colonize the moons.”
  233.     “That isn't our problem right now,” Scratcher chimed in, “just keep your eyes on your sensors. If we pick up anything bigger than a fighter, we're supposed to call in backup. And make sure you get a positive ID on it before you call in the whole fleet.”
  234.     “Yeah, y'all remember your three Ds,” Baker scoffed. “Be nice to the aliens.”
  235.     “I prefer double-Ds,” Boomer added.
  236.     “That's Scratcher's line,” Baker chuckled. “Remember the cans on that Borealan he got caught with? Bigger'n his head, they were.”
  237.     Scratcher's voice came through on the radio, attempting to talk over their laughter.
  238.     “Alright, alright. Keep your heads in the game, guys.”
  239.     The chatter quietened down for a while, but there wasn't much to do or see out here, the sky was pitch black save for the twinkling of the far off stars. Contrary to popular belief, many of the beautiful nebulae and clouds of colorful gas that people imagined when they thought of space weren't in the visible spectrum. They might be seen through telescopes and other such devices, but not with the naked eye. To their left, the infinite wall of rocks passed them by. They were traveling at immense speed, and it was hard to get a frame of reference without checking the counter on the console.
  240.     After maybe an hour of cruising, Jaeger picked something up on his scope, a heat blip somewhere in the asteroids.
  241.     “Eyes up people,” he called out, alerting his companions. “Picking something up on the infrared band. Something out there is kicking out a lot of heat.”
  242.     “I got it,” Baker added, “it's hotter than the fighter we found yesterday.”
  243.     “Peel off and spread out,” Jaeger said, “we're going in for a closer look.”
  244.     He gripped the stick, hitting the forward thrusters to shed velocity, straining against the straps that kept him secured to his seat. His squadron did the same, the thrusters on their bellies flaring and their engines burning brightly as they banked towards the asteroids one by one. They maintained formation, but they put some distance between the fighters, making themselves more difficult targets. Jaeger joined them, every change in velocity causing G-forces to tear at his body. He watched the small map in the bottom left of his visor that showed the locations of the other fighters relative to him, along with the red blip that they were now racing towards. The amount of heat either meant that whatever it was had been burning hard, or it was larger than what they had encountered the last time...
  245.     “Remember, don't take any hostile actions until you can confirm that it's a Bug ship,” Scratcher said. His voice sounded strained, they were still shedding velocity as they neared the cloud. “Or if it starts fucking shooting at you, either way.”
  246.     “They aren't going to give us the same courtesy,” Jaeger warned, “be careful.”
  247.     The loose formation of fighters slowed enough that the asteroids were navigable, each vessel making tiny adjustments with bursts of gas from their thrusters as they avoided the debris, perpetually rolling and dodging as they advanced deeper. It was enough of a challenge to keep from crashing without having to keep their eyes out for the enemy too.
  248.     “Can we extend our railguns?” Boomer asked, “is that considered aggressive?”
  249.     “Fuck that,” Baker replied, “I'm goin' hot.”
  250.     “Alright, but don't point it at anything until we get a positive ID,” Jaeger said as he flipped the guard on his trigger. There was a rumbling sensation that reverberated through his boots as the hatch on the back of his ship opened, and the railgun arm extended, the targeting reticle appearing on his HUD.
  251.     “Fuck!” Baker exclaimed, Jaeger's heart racing as he looked around for where the attack was coming from. “Fucking rock bounced off my wing,” he added.
  252.     “You asshole, Baker,” Jaeger complained. “Maintain radio silence unless you see something.”
  253.     This time the heat signature wasn't fading, and the four fighters slowly maneuvered through the asteroids as they neared the source. One of the larger rocks slowly rotated amidst the cloud of debris, it must have been a few kilometers wide, jagged and pockmarked from a millennia of collisions. Jaeger pointed his scanners at it, watching as his computer drew a wireframe image of the object and overlaid it on top. The desire to target his railgun was strong, instinctual, he had to make a conscious effort to keep his finger away from the trigger as he scoured the surface of the rock for activity.
  254.     “There! Got something,” Scratcher announced. “Feeding you video.”
  255.     Scratcher's ship was out of view, but he must have a clear line of sight, because Jaeger began to receive a video feed that appeared in a window in the top right of his HUD. It showed a grainy image of a rocky outcrop, what little light that actually made it from the system's star casting it into stark shadow. It was hard to get an idea of the size with no point of reference and no atmospheric haze, it could have been the size of a snowdrift or a mountain.
  256.     “I'm gonna shine my floodlight on it,” Scratcher said, and then the feed was lit up by a bright light. It looked like there was ice beneath the outcrop, reflecting in the camera, but there was something else there too. Lodged beneath the lip of rock like an insect hiding beneath a log was...a thing. It had a long, segmented body like a mantis shrimp or a lobster, tapering into a kind of thick tail. The armor was shiny and iridescent, hues of red and orange illuminated by the beam. Beneath it were dozens of insectoid legs of varying lengths, anchoring it to the dusty surface of the asteroid, the ones towards the bulbous front of its body longer and covered in what looked like large hooks. Each segment of its long tail had strange bulges protruding from it, two on each one for a total of maybe ten, a glint of metal reflecting off them. It didn't really have a defined head, but there was a bundle of what looked like wiry antennae and compound eyes hidden beneath the lip of its shell, twitching and shifting as Scratcher's floodlight disturbed it.
  257.     They didn't need to scan the thing to know that it was of Bug origin, and the video feed showed Scratcher's guns firing as he began to pull back. Jaeger was already checking his position on the map, spinning his Beewolf's nose towards his friend and gunning the engine. Acceleration crushed him against the padding of his seat as he opened his gun port and armed his missiles.
  258.     The flashes of gunfire and the orange bloom of explosions appeared in the distance, Jaeger decelerating so as not to overshoot, the G-forces buffeting him in his cockpit like he was riding a mechanical bull. Slowing down went against his every instinct, but in space, you didn't shed velocity once you eased off the throttle, you just kept going. He gritted his teeth, swinging his vessel to face the enemy as he drifted sideways, the computer doing its best to compensate with bursts from the thrusters.
  259.     The thing was huge, far larger than it had appeared on the video. Compared to Scratcher's tiny fighter, it looked to be about as big as a frigate, at least a hundred and fifty meters long. The little speck was retreating as the monster rose from its hiding place like a Kraken, spraying it with lines of glowing tracer fire that ricocheted off its armored hull and peppering it with missiles. Jaeger joined the fight, locking on with his railgun and unloading into the massive target, relying on the computer to handle targeting as he focused on positioning. The two other fighters soon came into range, but it was immediately apparent that they lacked the firepower to take this monster on.
  260.     “Don't waste your missiles!” Scratcher said, “it's too big. We need to call in backup!”
  261.     “What do we have that can kill this thing?” Baker asked. “Torpedo boat?”
  262.     “I'm calling it in,” Jaeger said, switching channels hurriedly. “Mayday, mayday. This is Bullseye, come in control.”
  263.     “This is control,” a woman's voice crackled in his ear, “report.”
  264.     “Have encountered a large Bug vessel hiding in the belt, too big for us to deal with. We need immediate support, this thing is the size of a frigate.”
  265.     “Roger that, Bullseye, please hold.”
  266.     Please hold? Easier said than done, he thought, watching as one of the creature's long forelimbs swiped at Scratcher. The Beewolf dodged out of the way, lines of thrusters flaring along the sides of the Bug vessel's segmented body like green candles as it rose higher from the surface of the asteroid, its many legs tucking beneath its body.
  267.     “Come in Bullseye,” control said.
  268.     “Bullseye here, go ahead.”
  269.     “Redirecting the UNN Baskeyfield to your position, stand by.”
  270.     The Baskeyfield, that was one of their torpedo frigates, it should be able to get the job done. They just had to hold out long enough for backup to arrive. Its engines were far larger and more powerful than those of the Beewolfs, resulting in a much higher top speed, but it had a lot more tonnage to move around. It would take longer to both accelerate and decelerate.
  271.     “Can I get an ETA on that, control?”
  272.     “Ten or fifteen minutes, Bullseye.”
  273.     “Frigate is on the way in fifteen, guys,” he said as he switched channels. “Let's try and draw it out of the asteroids so that the torpedoes can get a lock on it.”
  274.     “Watch the reach on its arms,” Scratcher said, grunting as he accelerated away from the biological spaceship. It flicked out one of its massive forelimbs again like a praying mantis, the barbs that lined it as long as a person was tall. It looked slow, but that was an illusion due to its size, Scratcher only just getting out of range of it as the limb missed him by a hair. Its spindly antennae twitched, its wet, glistening eyes shifting independently of one another as it tracked the different fighters. Didn't it have missiles, plasma guns, projectile weapons of any kind? What was its purpose? Did it fill some kind of non-combat role, like harvesting ice or other raw materials to take back to the hive ship?
  275.     Everyone kept their distance, backing off as the thing chased them, moving sluggishly through the asteroids due to its immense size. It was large enough that it could just knock any rock smaller than itself out of the way, pushing them aside with its limbs and letting them bounce off its tough shell. Unlike the hull of a traditional spaceship, the Bug's body was organic and flexible, which gave it an advantage in this kind of environment.
  276.     “The cannons ain't doing shit, keep hittin' it with the railguns,” Baker said. The carapace might be too thick for the conventional ammo to penetrate, but the tungsten slugs from the railguns were definitely getting through. They might get lucky and hit the pilot, or an internal organ, or whatever the hell was lurking beneath that shiny shell.
  277.     One would expect shouting and panic in the heat of battle, but everyone stayed remarkably calm. There was something impersonal about space combat, the distances involved, the relative tranquility of the sealed cockpit in which the only sound to be heard was that of your own instruments.
  278.     “Keep pulling back,” Scratcher said. “If we can lure him into open space, then he'll be vulnerable.”
  279.     The fleshy humps along its segmented back and tail began to wriggle, the movements immediately drawing Jaeger's eye.
  280.     “Somethin' weird is happening,” Baker exclaimed, “look at it's back!”
  281.     He watched in horror as something living crawled out of one of the humps. Segmented legs gripped the shell of the creature, pulling its bulbous body out from beneath a fleshy hood, like a maggot emerging from a wound. It was one of the fighters that they had encountered the day before, its carapace lined with metal armor, its compound eyes reflecting the light. It looked like it had been living inside the hump on the larger vessel's back, like some kind of parasite.
  282.     “It's some sort of carrier!” Jaeger exclaimed, “there must be ten of them on its back! Break off!”
  283.     More of the insectoid fighters pulled themselves from their organic hangars. Each one had a differently colored hull, birthed into space along with gas and fluids that froze into sparkling, crystalline clouds. Had they been refueling? Feeding on the larger vessel in the same way that a ship might siphon chemical fuel from a tanker?
  284.     Flashes of green light reflected on the curved carapace of the carrier as they blasted off, angling themselves towards the Beewolfs, their spindly legs tucking beneath their bellies and their glittering eyes fixed on their targets.
  285.     Chaos ensued, the Bug fighters scattering in all directions as they made for the Beewolfs, the human vessels scrambling as bursts of glowing plasma fire and tracer rounds lit up the darkness. Missiles left chemical trails in the sky as they burned towards their targets, impacting on rocks or exploding the Bugs into clouds of shattered carapace and organic mush, bright flares shooting out in mesmerizing patterns as the UNN ships took evasive action.
  286.     Jaeger veered off, disabling his safety limits as he burned away from the melee. His railgun continued to the track the enemy vessels, rotating and twisting on its arm as the Beewolf dodged and rolled.
  287.     Three of the Bugs had taken an interest in him, their plasma fire splashing against the rocks nearby like globs of acid, the not-quite-gas and not-quite-liquid melting into the stone like hot magma. One of them released a torpedo that sought him out like a bloodhound, perhaps attracted to heat or the smell of his engines, tiny eyes and protruding antennae clumped around the front of the metallic tube where the guidance system would have been on a human-made missile.
  288.     Jaeger flipped his vessel so that the nose was pointing upwards and slightly back, his engine flaring as he changed direction, the violent G-forces making his vision go grey as his flight suit constricted around his legs to prevent his blood from pooling there. His fighter rose in an upward arc, panels opening on the rear of his chassis to release a payload of glowing flares that spewed forth in a wing-like pattern. The Bug torpedo seemed drawn to them, veering off-course and slamming into a nearby asteroid, the rock crumbling and breaking apart as the missile exploded in a plume of green plasma.
  289.     Eight Gs, nine Gs, his HUD blinked a red warning symbol as it counted up and up. He had to ride that infinitely fine line between two deaths, blacking out and slamming into an asteroid, or burning up at the hands of the Bugs. It was like walking a tightrope over a bottomless chasm, as thin as a hair, the limitations of both his spacecraft and his own body guiding him.
  290.     As he leveled out, his vision cleared long enough to see his upside-down railgun score a hit on one of the pursuing vessels. The hail of slugs drilled through its forward sensor bank, as much of a head as a living spaceship could possess, the craft immediately losing coordination and beginning to drift.
  291.     Jaeger glanced across the battlefield at his comrades, just long enough to see the giant, shrimp-like carrier flick one of its arms out like a hatchet. It was aiming for Boomer's fighter, his callsign tagged on Jaeger's HUD, his vessel flying backwards as it fired its twenty-five-millimeter cannon at a pursuing Bug. He was too focused on the fight to see it, and before Jaeger could even speak a word of warning, the fifty-foot long limb cleaved his ship in half. It came down like a woodsman's axe, the sharp barbs that lined the forelimb tearing through the metal hull like it was made of paper, splitting it into two clean pieces. The half with the cockpit tumbled as it flew away, momentum carrying it off into the asteroid field, coolant and fuel spewing from the ruined airframe like dark blood.
  292.     “I'm hit!” Boomer's distorted voice came through on the radio, Jaeger could hear his rapid breathing in the confines of his helmet. “I'm spinning!”
  293.     His radio transmission fizzled out, there wasn't anything that Jaeger could do for him right now. They would have to send out a search party once the fighting was over and hope that he hadn't smashed into an asteroid. His suit would be able to keep him alive for a few hours at least, if it wasn't breached or damaged. Dwelling on it would do no good, Jaeger cleared his mind and focused on the task at hand.
  294.     “Pull back!” he ordered, “we're going to get overrun if we don't make it into open space!”
  295.     It was a fighting retreat, the vessels aiming their railguns behind them to lay down covering fire as they popped flares and pushed themselves to the limit. The G-forces threatened to make them black out as they dodged and rolled, using the asteroids as cover to avoid the volleys of plasma fire that followed after them. The Beewolfs were faster than the Bug fighters, but the Bugs were more maneuverable, their tolerances for the extreme Gs far higher than that of any human. They could endure harder accelerations, more sudden changes in velocity, things that would have turned a human to pulp in his suit. The carrier lagged behind, but it was slowly accelerating, knocking the asteroids aside like bowling pins as the lines of engines along its flanks propelled it forward on jets of green flame.
  296.     The flight computer couldn't calculate a safe route through the debris with all the dodging and weaving that Jaeger had to do to shake off the Bugs that were on his tail, and so he had to trust his instincts, relying on split-second reactions and raw gut feeling to navigate. There were still two Bugs locked onto him, bursts of plasma shooting past his wings so close that they singed his stealth coating. They weren't able to gain ground on him, but he couldn't lose them either. In the targeting window of the railgun that was serving as his rear-view mirror, he could see the monstrous, lobster-like carrier as it smashed through obstacles and turned the massive rocks to spreading clouds of rubble. It was relentless, its black, dead eyes fixed intently on its quarry.
  297.     They finally reached the edge of the asteroid field, bursting out into open space like they were breaching the surface of an ocean, dust and ice particles trailing from their wings like contrails. Immediately that sense of claustrophobia vanished, the twinkling stars greeting Jaeger like old friends, and he checked his HUD to make sure that his wingmen had made it out too. He could see Scratcher and Baker's callsigns tagged on his display, his radar mapping the wall of asteroids. He spun on his axis to face it, letting the momentum carry him away. Out here, the maneuverability of the Bug fighters wouldn't count for much. The Bugs followed close behind, seven of them left, shooting out of the dust cloud like bullets.
  298.     To their rear, the carrier emerged, exploding out of the Oort cloud like a battering ram. It sent the asteroids scattering, still gaining momentum as it surged towards the fighters, the rocks bouncing harmlessly off its thick shell.
  299.     “Hold them off!” Scratcher said over the radio, his voice crackling with static. “The torpedo frigate can't be more than five minutes out.”
  300.     Now that the odds had been evened out, Jaeger felt a surge of excitement welling up inside him. This was he had trained for, what he lived for, six degrees of freedom and enough firepower at his fingertips to reduce a whole squadron of Bugs to worm food.
  301.     “Keep drifting out, let them follow us, we'll lead them straight into range of the frigate. Focus fire on the fighters, ignore the carrier!”
  302.     The three Beewolf fighters opened up in unison, even the railguns having to lead their targets at such extreme range and velocity. The Bugs scattering to make themselves harder to hit as the distance between them was bridged by lines of tracer fire and missile trails. Jaeger watched as one of the missiles found its target, the Bug erupting into an explosion of viscera and tangled metal, another succumbing to a well-placed railgun salvo that must have hit some kind of critical system or organ. It spewed yellow goo from its wounds, the liquid turning to glittering crystals as it froze.
  303.     The fight was not entirely one-sided, however. The Bugs still outnumbered them, the Beewolfs forced to dodge a hail of glowing projectiles. One of the organic vessels loosed another torpedo, the weapon locking onto Scratcher and hurtling towards him.
  304.     “Out of flares!” Scratcher shouted, breathing heavily into his helmet as he tried to evade. The missile was agile, Jaeger tearing his eyes away from his target for a moment to watch as his friend's ship burned away in a dangerously tight arc. It was risky, Jaeger could see that he was pulling too many Gs, the torpedo shooting bursts of gas from its nose and tail as it turned to chase him down.
  305.     “Eject Scratcher, eject!” Jaeger shouted as he watched the torpedo close. There was no way that he could outrun it, the Bug weapon leaving a sparkling trail of propellant in space as if marking its path.
  306.     “I got it!” Scratcher replied, his voice straining as he endured the acceleration. In a few seconds, he wouldn't be able to eject. He'd be unconscious, and his drifting vessel would be destroyed anyway. “I got it...I got...fuck!”
  307.     Jaeger breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the canopy pop off with a burst of gas, the oxygen contained within turning into a cloud of frozen crystals, the ejector seat propelling Scratcher clear of his doomed vessel on a plume of flame. Not a second later, the Bug torpedo hit the Beewolf. A billowing cloud of green energy engulfed it, the black chassis slagging like a plastic toy being melted under a magnifying glass before the fuel tanks exploded. The wreckage continued on, sparkling metal and molten hull material spraying into the void.
  308.     “I think we're in trouble here, Bullseye,” Baker muttered. “Where the hell is the Baskeyfield?”
  309.     “New contacts on radar,” Jaeger said, failing to conceal the alarm in his voice. “I'm picking up four, no, five contacts heading towards us at high speed.”
  310.     “I see them,” Baker confirmed, “they're not coming from inside the asteroid field. They're skirting the edge of it. That formation is tighter than anything I've ever seen...”
  311.     “Try and get a lock on them,” Jaeger said as he rolled his vessel upside-down, narrowly avoiding a trail of plasma rounds. Baker was right, they were in trouble. With two fighters down, they had to contend with three or four Bug fighters each. That was a tall order, even for him. “Fuck, watch out! Another missile!”
  312.     One of the remaining fighters released a projectile that had been clutched against its belly with its spindly legs, another plasma torpedo speeding towards Jaeger. His HUD flashed a warning symbol, alerting him that it was locked on, an ominous red blip appearing on his map. He gunned the main engine, veering away as he popped his flares, the bright beacons reflecting off his glassy hull as they spread out in their wing pattern. The corners of his vision began to darken once again, his suit tightening like he was being vacuum-packed, his every muscle straining as he pulled the flight stick back.
  313.     The missile was only temporarily distracted by the flares this time, quickly finding his scent again and barreling towards him as they faded.
  314.     “It's on me,” he hissed through gritted teeth, using his thrusters to corkscrew his ship in an attempt to throw off his pursuer. It was smaller than him, faster and more agile, without an organic pilot to limit its maneuvers. His finger hovered over the emergency eject button, his mind fogging from the lack of blood, his railgun taking potshots at the closing missile and failing to hit the slim target.
  315.     A green beam of light was projected from the darkness, his video feed pixelating and corrupting, holding on the missile with perfect accuracy. It melted through the housing, a burst of escaping propellant sending the torpedo spinning off course. Jaeger struggled to turn his head, his bleary eyes widening as he located the source of the laser.
  316.     There was a formation of ships speeding towards the fight, his visor zooming in on the distant objects. It wasn't Bug reinforcements, it was the aliens that had come to Baker's aid the day before. Their ships looked like rounded, aerodynamic arrowheads, the hulls sleek and the points of their stubby wings upturned. There was a canopy towards the pointed nose, but he couldn't make out anything inside at this resolution.
  317.     The vessels were painted with speckled grey-blue camouflage, as if designed to make them harder to spot in an atmosphere, and along their flanks were the colored panels that Jaeger had spotted during their last encounter. They almost looked like LCD panels, running from the nose to the tail. As he watched, the lead vessel sent a wave of flashing light along its body like a cuttlefish. The other ships in the formation reciprocated, waves of indigo and deep purple flashing in the darkness. Could they be communicating with one another?
  318.     They were flying in such close formation, they couldn't have been more than a few meters apart. In space, that was close enough to be in spitting distance, and the coordination required could only have been matched by a trained aerobatics team.   
  319.     As he watched, each of the five vessels produced a beam, the green lasers focusing on a single Bug ship. The target vessel immediately slagged and burst into flames, the heat igniting the gasses and fuels contained within it like pouring gasoline on a fire. The formation shot past like a bullet, more flashes emitted by their strange color panels as they banked in perfect sync, coming around for a second pass.
  320.     “Hold your fire, they're friendly!” Jaeger warned.
  321.     “You think I can't figure that out for myself?” Baker shot back, “keep firing!”
  322.     The tables had turned, and Jaeger engaged the nearest Bug ship with renewed confidence as the mysterious aliens targeted another with concentrated laser fire. The Betelgeusians seemed confused by the sudden appearance of the aliens, breaking off and splitting their attention between both targets. It took some of the heat off Baker and Jaeger, the pair firing their engines as they moved to support the strange fighters.
  323.     “Look how they're flying!” Baker marveled, “it's like an airshow.”
  324.     The alien formation split into two groups, veering off in opposite directions to take on different targets, it was like watching a carefully choreographed dance. Jaeger fired his cannon at one of the distracted Bug ships, the rounds hammering it, drawing a long and bloody trail across the length of its hull. He swooped in to finish it off with a few railgun shots, zipping past the drifting carcass with only a few feet of clearance.
  325.     “Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!”
  326.     The battle was turning in their favor now, the Bug squadron was in disarray, but Jaeger's excitement was soon marred by the looming shadow of the carrier. The giant lobster came into range, blocking out the light from the nearby star and casting him into darkness, Jaeger twisting his stick as he avoided its bulky body by a hair. He watched through his canopy as the segments of its long tail whipped past overhead, looking over his shoulder as the thing barreled forward.
  327.     Baker and their new allies mopped up the remaining fighters, the last one succumbing to a well-placed missile, the fragments of its ruined hull tumbling end over end as they hammered into the side of the giant carrier. The behemoth was unfazed, its long antennae twitching and its glittering eyes pivoting as it tracked the enemy vessels.
  328.     What was it going to do next? Its complement of fighters had been shot down, and it didn't seem to have any ranged weapons with which to fend off the Beewolfs and the colorful aliens. Jaeger and Baker kept up their railgun fire, peppering the thing's armored shell, the aliens pulling back into a formation of five as they drew burning trails across its hull with their lasers. Nothing was getting through, that shell could be meters thick, they would have to count on the frigate to deal the killing blow.
  329.     “Shit,” he exclaimed, “the frigate!” He switched channels, trying to contact the incoming vessel before it arrived, it must be right on top of them by now. “Baskeyfield, come in Baskeyfield, this is Bullseye.” No reply, fuck. “Baskeyfield, come in!”
  330.     “This is the Baskeyfield,” a distorted voice said, Jaeger exhaling the breath that he had been holding in.
  331.     “Baskeyfield, we have friendly aliens on the field, do 'not' target them. Repeat, we have friendly aliens on the field. Target only the...the big fucker. Do you copy?”
  332.     “We copy you Bullseye, 'big fucker' is on our radar. Repeat, eyes on big fucker. Suggest you get clear of the engagement zone.”
  333.     Jaeger turned his head this way and that, searching for the incoming frigate. There, a massive heat signature on his scanner, closing fast. He got a visual on it, zooming in to see the frigate's massive engines flaring at full burn, four nozzles arranged in a diamond shape that were spewing superheated gas as bright as a sun. It was coming at them ass-first, decelerating using its main engines, probably already locking torpedoes on the Bug carrier.
  334.     “Get clear,” he warned, “the torp boat is on station.”
  335.     Baker didn't need to be told twice, spinning and putting his engine towards the carrier, burning away from it. The aliens were still doing passes, Jaeger had to find a way to get their attention. His mind raced, he couldn't just leave them here to potentially be caught in the crossfire, not after they had saved his ass. Think Jaeger, think!
  336.     He thumbed a button on his control panel, turning his nose towards the formation of arrowhead fighters, flashing his floodlight at them. They seemed to like light, maybe they would respond to it. He could practically feel the bulk of the Baskeyfield bearing down on them, he couldn't linger here for long, shining his beam and wiggling his wings as he let momentum carry him.
  337.     To his relief, they noticed him, turning towards him as he began to burn away. The giant Bug made to pursue them, but it had a lot of mass to move around, and it struggled to shed its forward momentum. It slid like it was on ice, its lines of thrusters moving independently as they tried to steer its bulk in a new direction.
  338.     The alien fighters took up formation beside Jaeger, giving him a closer look at their sleek hulls. Their aerodynamic chassis were lined with what almost looked like heat tiles, painted over with their ocean camouflage, the silver gleam of exposed machinery visible beneath it here and there. The color panels seemed to be made up of individual cells, like rows of computer monitors, and he could even make out what looked like scorch marks on the noses of the craft. Residue from atmospheric flight maybe? Were these vessels also spaceplanes? They couldn't be long-range, where had they been launched from?
  339.     He could see something moving around beneath the raised canopy of the nearest fighter, but he couldn't make out much detail, it was blurry and indistinct. These weren't drone ships, there was something piloting them...
  340.     Jaeger looked back over his shoulder at the pursuing Bug carrier, the glare of the frigate's engines reflecting off its iridescent carapace. The UNN vessel was still hundreds of miles away, but that was more than close enough for it to fire. As he zoomed in on the approaching ship, he saw a speck rise from its hull on a plume of flame. He couldn't see it at this range, but he knew from experience that one of the many torpedo hatches that were spaced out along the top of the roughly two hundred meter long vessel had opened, a missile the length of a city bus shooting out of the tube.
  341.     He tracked it as it sped towards the carrier, gaining velocity as its targeting systems made minute adjustments, crossing the distance alarming quickly. His visor darkened automatically to protect his eyes from the glare as the torpedo slammed into the Bug's midsection, a massive explosion tearing through the giant creature. The shockwave rocked it, the beast seeming to lurch, and then it was blasted into two clean halves. It resembled a lobster that had just been smashed with a hammer, fragments of its colorful shell spreading outwards in an expanding cloud along with charred flesh and torn metal, its many legs twitching and its engines petering out. The midship, if you could call it that, was partially vaporized where the torpedo had struck it. Gore and fluids leaked from its ruined body, the two halves drifting apart to expose what looked like organs and flesh on the inside, wrapped around metal structural beams like vines choking a tree.
  342.     Jaeger wanted to celebrate, but there were two pilots missing and every second counted. He opened a channel to the Baskeyfield, static crackling in his ear.
  343.     “This is the Baskeyfield, go ahead Bullseye.”
  344.     “We have two pilots down, one ejected and one is missing inside the asteroid field. You need to scramble rescue boats immediately. We can assist in the search efforts if necessary.”
  345.     “Copy that Bullseye. We have Scratcher on our scope, his beacon is still active. Life signs are steady. No read on the second beacon, the asteroids might be blocking it.”
  346.     “Roger that, Baskeyfield, me and Scorch are gonna stay on station and-”
  347.     “Contact!” Baker announced.
  348.     Something large emerged from superlight nearby, its bulk vomited back into reality along with a cloud of colorful gas, like a technicolor smear on the black canvass of space. Jaeger's instruments lit up, warning him of the impending threat, radar and thermal sensors feeding him data on its mass and energy output. It was larger than the frigate, perhaps three hundred meters in length, the hull composed of various metallic alloys. There was a large nuclear generator inside that was kicking out a lot of heat, no doubt already recharging the jump drive. Where had it come from, and how had it found them?
  349.     He looked out of his canopy, the giant ship hanging in space at the edge of the Oort cloud, its white hull reflecting the light from the far off star. It was long and thin, seemingly made up of rounded segments or cylinders that were joined together, clearly not of Bug design. At one end was what resembled a bridge, with windows that looked out into space, and to the rear was a bulky engine module. In the center was a ring, not unlike that of the Pinwheel space station, connected to the main body of the ship via spokes as it slowly rotated. Centrifugal force to simulate gravity, did they not have artificial gravity generators?
  350.     The alien fighters left their formation, Jaeger watching them as they broke off, heading towards the strange vessel. It must be their mothership, was this their version of a carrier?
  351.     “It's locking onto us,” Baker warned.
  352.     “Hold your fire, I'm sure they're friendly,” Jaeger replied. “They're probably scanning us.”  He switched channels to the Baskeyfield again, the captain of the ship outranked him. “Baskeyfield this is Bullseye, what are your orders?”
  353.     “Captain says hold fast,” the operator replied, “we're putting a call through to the Rorke.”
  354.     “I don't like this, not one bit,” Baker muttered. “They might have been friendly so far, but that ship is a lot bigger'n we are, and we have no idea what it's capable of.”
  355.     “Baskeyfield says hold fast,” Jaeger said, relaying the orders. “They're scanning us, so scan them back if it makes you feel any better. Just remember your three Ds, and keep your railgun in your pants.”
  356.     “Three Ds my ass,” he grumbled, but it looked like he was keeping his cool. His weapon ports were closed, and his railgun was stowed. Jaeger did likewise, closing the port on his cannon and retracting his railgun. The alien ships took up position around the larger vessel, docking with it belly-to-hull. Apparently, there was no hangar for them to land in. The more he looked at it, the more primitive this vessel seemed. Their carrier was too small to have a hangar, so they docked externally, the same method used by archaic human spacecraft. They couldn't generate their own gravity, so they had to use a spinning torus to simulate the effects. Unless that big ring served some other purpose, but Jaeger couldn't imagine what.
  357.     Either way, they had advanced weaponry and superlight technology, which made them a threat. He kept his sensors fixed on the ship, just in case they decided that the UNN were no more welcome here than the Bugs. The standoff continued for a few more minutes, and then there was another burst of multicolored gas. The Rorke emerged from the tear in reality, the colorful residue spreading in its wake like a ripple on the surface of a lake. Seeing its massive, ocean-grey bulk immediately set Jaeger at ease, it looked like a small moon in comparison to the alien vessel. Its hull bristled with weaponry, not currently targeting the unidentified ship, but it was an admirable show of force.
  358.     The rest of the support fleet followed behind it, pulled along in its superlight wake, drifting for a few moments as their crews recovered from the mental and physical shock of jump travel. They had sent the entire fleet, good. It might be interpreted as an aggressive move, but it would hopefully deter any aspirations of violence. There was a crackle as a voice came through on his radio.
  359.     “This is Captain Fielding, hailing all UNN vessels. Maintain formation, FCP is in full effect, don't take any actions without orders from me.”
  360.     The Baskeyfield began to burn back towards the cluster of ships, the Beewolfs doing the same. Jaeger was about to remind them about the downed pilots, but he could see a swarm of rescue vessels leaving the Rorke's hangar, one group moving off into space and the other approaching the asteroid field. He wanted to assist, but it looked like Fielding was taking direct control of the situation. Things could get very hairy.
  361.     What would happen next? Should they try to communicate? Would the aliens send a delegation to the Rorke, or the other way around? The carcass of the ruined Bug carrier still drifted between them, pieces of its thick shell cluttering the sky. Had their cooperation been well-intentioned, or simply opportunistic? He waited a while longer as the higher-ups deliberated, and then Jaeger heard the Captain's voice in his ear again.
  362.     “Lieutenant Jaeger, this is Captain Fielding, are you receiving me?”
  363.     “Loud and clear, Sir.”
  364.     “Good. The Captain of the Baskeyfield tells me that you were able to communicate with the aliens?”
  365.     “I...wouldn't put it quite that way, Captain. I was able to signal them with my Beewolf's floodlight, they seemed to respond to that.”
  366.     “In either case, it seems that you've had the most contact with them. They responded to your signals and took up formation with you, so I'm told. I want you to fly your Beewolf up close to the bridge of the unknown ship and signal them with your floodlight, like you did with their fighters. Try to make contact, show them that we're not here to fight them. You're the closest thing that we have to an ambassador right now.”
  367.     Jaeger swallowed, eyeing up the unidentified ship. The Rorke might make it look like a toy, but it was a damn sight bigger than his FS-26. It was a direct order from the Captain, however. He couldn't refuse it.
  368.     “Yes, Sir.”
  369.     He could practically feel the eyes of thousands of crew members on his back as he slowly flew towards the alien ship, using short bursts from his thrusters rather than his main engine so as not to appear too aggressive or put out too much heat. He glided gently through space, nearing what appeared to be the front of the strange alien ship. As he closed, he could see that there were figures moving beyond the row of windows that wrapped around the rounded nose in a crescent shape. It was like watching people moving around on the ground from the window of a low flying plane, the distance still far too great to make out any meaningful details.
  370.     He exhaled, trying to calm the racing of his heart.
  371.     “Here we go...”
  372.     He hit a button on his control panel, the floodlight that was mounted on his hull flashing on and off a few times. He waited for a response, not sure what to expect, hoping that they didn't mistake his lamp for a really shitty laser and proceed to blow him out of the sky.
  373.     After a short delay, there was a bright flash of light, a beam directing at his vessel and then turning on and off as it reproduced his sequence. His visor darkened automatically, it seemed to be some kind of searchlight. Alright, they had an understanding. Now how the hell should he signal that he wanted them to follow him back to the Rorke? It didn't seem like he could dock with the alien ship, there was no hangar, and the fighters had latched onto their carrier with what must be a proprietary system. There must be an airlock, but he didn't fancy leaving his Beewolf floating in space.
  374.     He turned his ship on its axis, using his thrusters to push himself away, feigning returning to his fleet and then coming back around to his original position. He mimed the gesture a couple more times, waiting for a response.
  375.     “Yes, that's good,” he heard Fielding say over the radio. “Keep that up and see how they respond.” Jaeger could hear people talking in the background, there was probably a whole committee of people advising the Captain.
  376.     He repeated the maneuver again, and then a new heat signature appeared on his scope. He watched as a vessel emerged from out of view behind the ship's long, cylindrical hull. It was some kind of dropship, there was no mistaking it. Its design was pointed and sleek just like the arrowhead fighters had been, but it was far larger, with a wider wingspan and a swollen chassis. It looked like a cross between a spaceplane and a UNN shuttle, clearly designed for atmospheric flight as much as for space travel. It was almost as if someone had welded stubby, swept wings and a streamlined nose to a trailer, reminding him of the space shuttles that had pioneered the era of human expansion into space.
  377.     This one had the LCD panels along its flanks, and when he flashed his floodlight at them, they responded with a flurry of colors. Alright, he was in business.
  378.     “Where am I leading this thing, Sir?”
  379.     “To the starboard hangar bay,” Fielding replied, “we'll have a team ready to greet them.”
  380.     “Roger that, Sir. Bringing them in...”
  381.     He turned about, keeping an eye on the unwieldy vessel as it followed behind him. It was painted in the same ocean camouflage colors as the fighters, the rounded nose and the flush underbelly charred by the flames of reentry. The canopy was placed far forward, near the nose, and he could just about make out shadows moving inside. It surprised him that they hadn't sent a lone fighter, it seemed that they wanted to send a team, if indeed this was a dropship and not some kind of flying bomb...
  382.     They neared the hangar, the force field that kept the atmosphere inside shimmering with a faint, blue light. Uh oh, the aliens didn't seem to have artificial gravity if the spinning torus was anything to go by. How would they react when they entered the hangar and found that it had gravity? Was there a way for him to signal that to them?
  383.     “Er...Captain Fielding, Sir,” he began. “I don't think these guys have gravity on their ship. Any idea how we might warn them about our gravity generator so they don't nose dive into the deck?”
  384.     “I'll have some engineers jump up and down on the deck as they land,” he replied. Jaeger was about to laugh, but then he realized that it wasn't a joke, it really was all that they could do to signal the aliens.
  385.     “Roger that, proceeding...”
  386.     He extended his landing gear, making sure that the alien dropship could see it, and then he coasted slowly towards the translucent energy barrier. He passed through it, engaging the thrusters on the underside of his vessel as he gradually lowered it down to the deck. He felt the impact reverberate through the ship as he touched down, his engine powering off.
  387.     Jaeger struggled to pull off his helmet, disconnecting from the Beewolf's systems and opening the canopy. It rose painfully slowly, and when there was enough room, he leapt out onto the deck, his helmet clasped under his arm as he watched the alien dropship slowly approach.
  388.     Baker had already landed, he must have been ordered back to the Rorke. He was ecstatic, practically skipping as he made his way over to Jaeger's side. A space had been cleared in the usually busy hangar, they had moved the ships out of the way as much as they could. There were dozens of people watching, flight crews and engineers peering out from between the idle vessels, along with a few armored Marines just in case things went South. Jaeger had never seen the bay so quiet, he could have heard a pin drop.
  389.     The alien ship seemed hesitant, then the nose pushed through the force field, thrusters on the flat belly belching jets of fire as they compensated for the gravity. It was like watching a fridge trying to stay aloft. As a pilot, Jaeger got an immediate sense of how awkward this behemoth must have been to fly. It seemed relatively unsuited for VTOL, perhaps it was designed for gliding instead? A set of three, wheeled landing gear extended, the vessel swaying a little as they touched down, rolling for a second before hitting the breaks. It was inside, and now Jaeger could truly appreciate its size. It was big, at least fifteen, maybe twenty meters long and half as tall. The twin tail fins on the rear of its streamlined body must have been eight or nine meters from the deck to their tips. It was much larger than a UNN dropship, heavier too. Were these aliens giants? Or was this ship designed to carry a whole platoon of soldiers?
  390.     The light panels along the sides flashed in brilliant shades of orange and yellow, eliciting 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the crowd, even though nobody knew what they might be signaling. Jaeger saw a white uniform out of the corner of his eye, it seemed that Captain Fielding had come down from the bridge to observe the historic occasion personally, flanked on either side by two large Borealans wearing combat armor and full-faced visors. They weren't armed, but then again, a Borealan didn't need a rifle to be deadly.
  391.     There was a loud hiss as a large landing ramp at the rear of the vessel began to slowly descend on a pair of hydraulic cylinders, thick and heavy, possibly reinforced with armor plating. It reached the deck with a thud, facing towards the force field so that nobody could get a view inside the compartment. You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife, even Baker had stopped bouncing up and down excitedly and was watching with bated breath.
  392.     Something came down the ramp.
  393.     The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the ocean camo, splotches of grey and blue that matched the patterning on their ships. The alien was wearing a form-fitting suit, lighter than the combat armor that he was used to seeing, rubbery and flexible. He could make out what looked like insulated cabling for the internal electronics running along the limbs. The creature was between four and five feet tall, the body plan basically humanoid, with two digitigrade legs that were long and powerfully built in proportion to its relatively small and short torso. It had two arms that were tipped with two-fingered hands and an opposable thumb, along with a long, thick tail that it held above the ground like it was being used for balance.
  394.     It turned its helmeted head as it walked down the ramp, looking right at him through an opaque visor. It seemed to have a snout that protruded from its face, but that might just be some kind of respirator, it was impossible to tell. It had what looked like a pair of dangling, flexible ponytails snaking out of the back of its helmet, long enough that they reached the small of its back. He thought that they might be connected to an oxygen tank at first, or whatever it was that these creatures breathed, but on closer inspection, they were hanging free.
  395.     A second followed it down the ramp, and then a third, then two more. In all, five of the bizarre aliens emerged from their vessel, staying close together and moving as a group. They walked strangely, with an odd, halting gait that reminded him of a chicken. It wasn't as pronounced, but they bobbed their heads slightly with every step, craning their necks to look around the hangar.
  396.     One of them tapped its boot on the ground as if testing the gravity, balanced on what looked like two toes, while another stared at the blackness of space behind them. It was perhaps alarmed by how insubstantial the force field seemed. The one at the head of the group was examining the humans, and Jaeger had to remind himself that this was also their first contact with aliens. Well, Coalition aliens at least. Hopefully, the Betelgeusians hadn't instilled in them a xenophobic fear or suspicion of outsiders.
  397.     The leader held up an arm, and Jaeger was mesmerized as a colorful pattern flashed along the limb. They had the same LCD panels mounted on their suits that he had seen on their ships, a flexible bank of what looked like tiny computer monitors running from the wrist to the elbow along the outside of the material. It lifted the dangling ponytails too, they seemed to be prehensile like tentacles, more technicolor patterns flashing along their length. It was like watching some kind of bioluminescent squid, and its fellows seemed to respond to it with their own, more muted patterns.
  398.     What could be the purpose of these flashing lights? Surely it wasn't their only means of communication? It wasn't entirely unheard of, Bug ships sometimes used patterned sails to communicate between their larger vessels, but it seemed unlikely for what was clearly a technological civilization.
  399.     The group of aliens closed ranks, watching intently as Captain Fielding decided to move forward. He waved for the Borealans to wait, the felines flexing their curved claws and shifting their weight from foot to foot. Was Fielding making the right decision, approaching these unknown aliens alone? They didn't seem to be armed, but nobody could be completely certain of that.
  400.     He stopped within a few feet of the lead alien, the short creature cocking its head on its flexible neck as it looked up at him. It was about two feet shorter than he was, he must look like a giant to them. What would he do next?
  401.     “Hello,” he said. “My name is Captain Fielding of the United Nations Navy. Welcome to the Rorke.”
  402.     Fielding waited, but there was no reply, the aliens merely cocking their heads in confusion. It seemed that he had a backup plan, however, producing a tablet computer and turning the screen towards them. He tapped at it, and a wave of color passed across it, mimicking the signals that the aliens had been sending during their fight with the Bugs. Someone must have examined the footage and reproduced the pattern, blues and purples swelling and fading.
  403.     This, the aliens responded to, one of them lifting its forearm and creating a similar pattern. Once that was done, it looked back over its shoulder, perhaps communicating with its companions in some way. They huddled, exchanging glances beneath their angular helmets, not using their colorful panels this time. Did they have onboard radios, were they psychic?
  404.     One of them tapped at the screen on its arm with its two fingers, it seemed that they used touch panels just like humans did. After a few moments, it showed the screen to its friends, the aliens crowding around to get a look. They were doing something, but he had no idea what, the angle was wrong for Jaeger to be able to see what was being displayed. They gestured to one another with their hands, their helmeted heads moving as if they were discussing something.
  405.     The lead alien turned back to Fielding, raising its hand towards its helmet. It hit some kind of button where the ear would have been on a human, and then there was a hiss of escaping gas as Jaeger watched with wide eyes, the helmet opening like a pair of jaws. It split into two halves, the lower staying still while the upper slowly rose up, not unlike the canopy of his fighter.
  406.     Beneath it was a hairless, smooth head. It was rounded, with a sloped forehead that tapered into a snout, and he was immediately reminded of a dinosaur or a lizard. It looked so small, almost dainty, covered in smooth skin that was a dull green in color. He was too far away to say if it was scaly or not. He could see its nostrils flaring at the end of its muzzle as it took in breaths of air, perhaps they had been discussing whether it was safe to breathe the atmosphere. It didn't seem to be having any great difficulty, which suggested that it also breathed a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.
  407.     Its eyes were a vibrant shade of violet, reflective, and it met Jaeger's curious gaze for a brief second. There was intelligence in those eyes, recognition, the reptilian pupils dilating as they looked back at him.
  408.     It opened its mouth and spoke, its fleshy lips covering rows of small, pointed teeth. It emitted a series of high-pitched chirps and beeps, like bird song almost, warbling and cooing. Nobody had any idea what it had said, but it was capable of verbal communication of some kind, which made things a little easier at least.
  409.     The Captain waved over a group of people who approached cautiously, their uniforms a mixture of yellows and blues. There was even one of the medical staff, identified by their white lab coat. They were holding tablet computers, recording devices, various instruments and medical tools. The Rorke was not a science vessel, it was not especially well equipped for scientific or expeditionary missions, nor did it have a person or people who were dedicated to the task of making contact with aliens. It was a military vessel, after all, waging war was its primary purpose. But due to its sheer size, the crew compliment naturally included a number of people who might fill those roles in a pinch, doctors and engineers for example.
  410.     The aliens didn't seem concerned as the humans approached, and Fielding turned to a man wearing an engineer's uniform. Jaeger recognized him as Chief Engineer Campbell, he had met him during the meeting when they had been assessing video footage of the alien craft.
  411.     “What do you suggest we do next, Mister Campbell?”
  412.     “Protocol says that we're supposed to administer cognitive tests and that we should demonstrate our understanding of math and science,” he replied.
  413.     “I think it's pretty clear that they're intelligent. They did arrive here in a spacecraft, after all,” the Captain replied.
  414.     “Let's just see what happens, Sir, unless you have any other suggestions?”
  415.     Campbell always seemed rather aloof around the Captain, Jaeger had noted that their interactions were informal, perhaps indicating that they were friends. Then again, Campbell might be some kind of savant with an encyclopedic knowledge of the ship, but with poor social graces. That wasn't uncommon amongst the intellectual class.
  416.     The man tapped at the screen of his tablet, and then slowly offered it to the lead alien. The reptilian creature blinked at it, cocking its head like a dog, then snatched it from his hands. Campbell lurched backwards, alarmed, but the alien didn't seem to be aggressive. It turned the device over in its gloved hands, examining it. Campbell found the courage to reach out and grasp the tablet, angling it so that the screen was facing up, and tapping at it with his finger. He then gestured to his sleeve, indicating that it was similar to the panels that the aliens used on their suits.
  417.     The alien chirped, tapping at the screen, its head waving from side to side like a cat that was judging a jump from a bed to a dresser. Due to the upward angle of the tablet and how short the creature was, Jaeger could see what was displayed on the screen from his position beside his fighter, perhaps twenty feet from the group. It was a sequence of numbers, portrayed as dots rather than characters. They were lined up in a row. Four, two, six, four, eight. After a moment, he realized that it was a number puzzle, the user was expected to work out which number came next in the sequence.
  418.     The aliens crowded around, examining the tablet. Their leader chirped and warbled, presumably into some kind of microphone inside its helmet. Would they understand what it meant, and what was expected of them? Regardless of their logic skills, if the puzzle simply didn't translate, then it wouldn't be of any use.
  419.     The next number in that sequence should be six, Jaeger reasoned. Four minus two was two, two plus four was six, six minus two was four, four plus four was eight. It was a repeating sequence where two was subtracted, and four was added. Ergo, eight minus two would be six.
  420.     The alien that was holding the tablet tapped at the screen six times, and there was a beep from the tablet confirming that the puzzle had been solved successfully. To Campbell's surprise and Baker's amusement, the alien repeated the beep, mimicking the sound like a parrot.
  421.     Next, another sequence of numbers appeared, also arranged in a row from top to bottom. Two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen. Easy, those were prime numbers, the next number in the sequence would be seventeen.
  422.     The aliens examined the screen again, this time solving the puzzle quickly. The reptile tapped the number seventeen out with its finger, and another beep was emitted. Again it repeated the noise with surprising accuracy, it seemed to like how it sounded. Some of its companions began to open their own helmets too, leaning in to participate in the game. Jaeger noted that they had some slight variations in skin color. Some were spinach-green like a Krell, while a few had brighter or darker tones, others were closer to beige.
  423.     They chittered and whistled, communicating with one another. They really did sound like birds, it was uncanny.
  424.     The next test was more complex, it showed a grid made up of white boxes, and inside them were black shapes. Jaeger could make out circles, squares, and triangles. There were eight shapes on the grid, the ninth left empty, the player expected to find the next shape that fit the sequence. The options were lined up at the bottom of the screen. It was like something that one might find on an IQ test, another logic puzzle, pattern recognition. Jaeger couldn't quite see well enough to solve it from where he was standing. After a moment of deliberation, the alien appeared to select the correct answer, beeping in time with the device.
  425.     Campbell reached out his hand, waiting with his palm up, and the alien returned the tablet.
  426.     “Well, we now know that they have a similar concept of mathematics,” he said with a smug tone. “It's a universal language. Even if we can't translate their speech, we have a way to communicate simple concepts.”
  427.     “Concepts,” the alien repeated, mimicking Campbell's pronunciation of the word down to his British accent. Everyone was taken aback, staring at the alien as it followed with another loud beep. “Simple concepts!”
  428.     Its voice was high pitched and tinny, somewhat croaky, again reminding Jaeger of a parrot.
  429.     “Did it just...speak?” Fielding asked, concern creeping into his voice.
  430.     “No, no,” the woman in the white lab coat said. “It's mimicry! It doesn't understand what it's saying, it's reproducing the words phonetically, just like it mimicked the beep from the tablet!”
  431.     “Like a parrot?” Campbell asked.
  432.     “Yes, like a parrot or a myna bird,” the woman said as she peered at the reptilian creature. “Remarkable...”
  433.     “Can we teach it to understand what it's saying, Doctor Evans?” Fielding asked. The creature turned its attention back to him when he spoke, attracted to the sounds.
  434.     “Potentially,” Evans replied, already furiously typing on her tablet. “We could use context and association to teach them verbs and nouns, but sentence structure and grammar is going to be a challenge. Perhaps I could even rig up a Webber translator to work with these aliens instead of the Krell language, we're already miles ahead of where she had to start out.”
  435.     “What's it doing now?” Campbell asked. The lead alien seemed to have lost interest in Fielding and was now looking straight at Jaeger, it's violet-colored eyes fixed on him intently. Jaeger was a little taken aback, the thing never blinked. It marched over to him, the four others bobbing along behind it, the group of engineers and doctors looking on in confusion.
  436.     It stopped about a foot in front of Jaeger, peering up at him curiously. Baker took a step back and got out of their way, he was clearly thrilled by the whole affair. Jaeger didn't know how to react, and so he stared back, watching as its reptilian pupils scrutinized him. After an uncomfortably long time, it turned its attention to his Beewolf, admiring its black, angular hull. It seemed to thrust its head towards the ship, and then chirped, looking up at him as if it expected a response. What was that, a nod? Their version of pointing? He looked over at Fielding, silently begging for instructions.
  437.     “Just see what it does, Lieutenant,” the Captain said with a shrug. The alien gestured again and then held up its arm. A wave of purple and blue crawled across its sleeve, and Jaeger recognized it. That was the pattern that the aliens had used during the battle, did it have some significance?
  438.     He rummaged in his pocket and withdrew his phone, holding it up and using the camera flash to signal the reptile, as he had done with his floodlight. The alien beeped, mimicking the sound from the logic puzzle again. Did it think that the beep meant 'yes'?
  439.     It turned and began to walk up and down the length of his fighter, examining it, ducking under the chassis and craning its neck to inspect some of the exposed machinery on the landing gear. It recognized him, and the ship. Had this alien been one of the pilots who had come to their aid during the battle?
  440.     “It knows you,” Baker whispered gleefully. “Look, it recognizes your plane.”
  441.     “That's my Beewolf,” Jaeger explained, getting the creature's attention as it looked back over its shoulder at him. He nodded to his ship and repeated the word. “Beewolf.”
  442.     “Beewolf,” the alien mimed in that strange, tinny voice.
  443.     “Should we stop them?” Campbell asked. “I don't know if it's very wise to let them run around the hangar unsupervised, examining all of our technology...”
  444.     “Give them the run of the hangar,” Fielding replied, “but post guards on the exits and stop them from entering the rest of the ship for now. Why don't you go poke your head inside their lander and see what you can find?”
  445.     “You think they'll mind?”
  446.     One of the aliens leapt up onto the wing of the Beewolf. They were incredibly agile, it must have jumped more than ten feet straight up. It landed almost silently, quite light apparently, walking along the chassis towards the nose and sticking its head inside the cockpit.
  447.     “They seem to be taking the same liberty,” Fielding chuckled, “I don't think they have any room to complain.”
  448.     As Campbell moved off to inspect their dropship, Jaeger climbed up towards the cockpit of his fighter, hooking his hand around the lip and hanging off the side of the nose as the alien glanced up at him. Its neck was so flexible, and it moved in that odd, halting way that so reminded him of birds.
  449.     “Cockpit,” he said, nodding to the interior of the ship.
  450.     “Cockpit,” it trilled, colors flashing on the pair of pigtails that dangled from its head.
  451.     “Beewolf, cockpit,” Jaeger said.
  452.     “Beewolf cockpit,” it repeated, adding a beep at the end. He wasn't sure if the alien really understood the relation between the two words, but it couldn't hurt to teach it more phrases. That seemed to be what Fielding and the others were preoccupied with right now.
  453.     “If they're like parrots, maybe they'll like this,” Baker mused as he drew a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen. He held up the small device, an upbeat pop song beginning to play through the speakers. Campbell shot him a look of displeasure from across the hangar where he was inspecting the engines of the alien vessel, but the creatures seemed to like it. Their reptilian heads snapped around, trying to locate the source of the music, and they closed in on him like a pack of wolves. The one that had been climbing on the Beewolf leaned down from atop the wing, gripping the edge with its fingers, extending its neck and using its long tail for balance as it stared at the flashing visualization that was playing on the screen. It chirped and warbled, fascinated, its companions joining in. Baker laughed as the alien whistled along with the tune, doing a remarkable job of reproducing the different instruments. In fact, the range of vocalizations that they were capable of seemed to dwarf that of humans.
  454.     “I think you've made a friend, Baker,” Jaeger chuckled. A few of the other people in the hangar were closing in now, other pilots and technicians wanting to get a closer look at the visitors and their strange ship. Fielding allowed it, the creatures seemed brave, certainly not as skittish as one might assume an animal of their stature to be.
  455.     “I have important matters to attend to,” he called over to Campbell, “keep me updated.” At that he turned, gesturing for his Borealan guards to follow him as he made his way back in the direction of the bridge. No doubt he had a lot of planning to do, the appearance of the aliens had thrown a spanner in the works. Captaining a carrier came with a lot of responsibility, fleets were expected to take the initiative and to act on their own when they were on deployment, as messages couldn't be sent to the Admiralty asking for instructions. Lag-free communication between planets and large space stations was made possible using quantum entangled satellites, what happened to one was immediately reflected in the other regardless of its distance. Ships could not carry them, however. The fleet was on its own, and it would have to make its own decisions.
  456.     The leader of the alien pack lost interest in the music, walking back up the chassis and examining the hull beneath its feet. It seemed to be looking for something specific. It came across the hatch that concealed the railgun, chirping at Jaeger as it tapped the flush panel with its foot.
  457.     “Oh, you want to see the railgun?” He was surprised that the alien remembered it, but then again, it must be as novel to them as the laser weapons that they used were to him. He leaned inside his cockpit and flipped the guard on the firing trigger, the doors of the hatch opening and the railgun extending on its flexible arm as the alien leapt back.
  458.     “Railgun,” he said, the alien looking over at him quizzically. It took a step forward, inspecting the machinery, running its hands over the copper coils that lined the long barrel. It could barely reach, the arm was as tall as it was, the barrel just as long. Jaeger hopped up onto the chassis, walking over to join it as it pawed at the ammo belt. He disconnected the belt, pulling out one of the massive tungsten slugs and showing it to the alien. It was the length of a beer bottle, tapered into a sharp point at one end, far heavier than it looked. There was nothing sophisticated about the projectile, it was simply a hunk of metal that was propelled at great speed by the electromagnets that were spaced out along the barrel.
  459.     The alien reached out and took the slug, inspecting it more closely. It was strong for such a slight creature, the weight of that bullet was nothing to scoff at.
  460.     “Railgun,” it trilled.
  461.     Jaeger heard heavy footsteps, turning to see a giant Krell approaching one of the more curious lizards. Krell were massive by human standards, and the size difference between the two aliens was astronomical. The little creature could have sat comfortably in the Krell's palm, it was like the difference between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua.
  462.     The Krell loosed a rumbling, reverberating call, so low that it was almost subsonic. Jaeger could feel it in his bones, and it might have been intimidating if he hadn't known how friendly the giant gators were. They would never hurt a fly under normal circumstances, until you threatened their friends, however. Then they would turn into living battering rams in order to protect their charges. They looked slow and cumbersome, but they could move like a charging bull when they needed to, and their armored bodies could absorb an impressive amount of damage.
  463.     The alien warbled in reply, the Krell leaning down close, the two practically bumping noses as they examined one another. The Krell's snout was almost as long as the alien was tall. Jaeger wasn't worried, there was no chance of one of the aliens being stepped on, he was just glad that there were no Borealans around. The felines might not take too kindly to having their personal space invaded by these presumptuous little critters, and they were just large enough to make for a good snack.
  464.     When Jaeger turned back around, the lead alien was peering at him, leaning alarmingly close and staring right into his eyes. Now he could make out the scales that coated its body. They were small and fine, interlocking like a mosaic, different to the overlapping scales and bony scutes of the Krell. Its snout was maybe an inch from his nose, and when he took a step back, it followed him.
  465.     “Alright...” he said, wondering what the alien was trying to accomplish. “Getting a little close there, buddy. I take it your people don't have a concept of personal space?”
  466.     “Space,” it chirped, “Beewolf railgun.”
  467.     “Beewolf railgun, yeah...”
  468.     It whistled the tune from Baker's pop song, scrutinizing him intently as if waiting for something. When he blinked, the slit of its pupil dilated into a wider circle, and then it drew back as it chittered at him. It flashed a series of colors across its arms and pigtails, surging oranges tapering into reds. Did that mean something? Were staring contests part of their social interaction?
  469.     “How about I show you more of the Beewolf?” he asked, not expecting any kind of answer that he could make sense of. “That's a language that we can both understand. You're a pilot, aren't you? You were flying out there with me.” He gestured to the force field that protected the hangar from the vacuum of space.
  470.     “Beewolf,” it said, beeping again. One of the engineers appeared beneath the wing, clad in yellow overalls that were stained with what looked like coolant, taking off a pair of noise canceling headphones and letting them rest around his neck as he waved to Jaeger with a gloved hand.
  471.     “Any damage to report on Beewolf two-oh-six?” he asked. “We're gonna get to work servicing her if you and your new friend are done walking around on my stealth coating. You know that thing costs more than you make in a lifetime, right?”
  472.     Jaeger dropped down onto the deck, waving for the alien to follow him. It seemed hesitant, wanting to examine the vessel some more, but after a moment it leapt gracefully from the wing of the plane and landed a few feet away.
  473.  
  474. CHAPTER 4: REPEAT AFTER ME
  475.  
  476.     “I can't believe it, it's unprecedented,” Doctor Evans said as she sat cross-legged on the deck across from one of the aliens. “Their mimicry was one thing, that's not unheard of, but the rate at which they're learning and applying the language is incredible. It's like they have photographic memories, they don't even need to practice. You give them information and they just...retain it.”
  477.     She set her tablet down, running her fingers through her dark hair and giving Jaeger a wide-eyed glance. Their guests were milling about nearby, perched on crates like birds, or sitting with their two-toed feet dangling off the edge of a nearby fighter. They seemed to like being high up, and after the initial burst of excitement and activity, they had appeared to tire. Their leader seemed to want to stay close to Jaeger, and so he had remained in the hangar, assisting Evans in her work. He was still on call, but it wasn't like he'd have to go far if he had to rush to his Beewolf. A few hours had passed, and much of the initial novelty had worn off. The flight crews and engineers were going about their usual business, the familiar sounds of the hangar bay echoing throughout the space. Even Baker had run out of steam after a while and had returned to his quarters to sleep.
  478.     “Why is that so unusual?” Jaeger asked.
  479.     “Well, learning a language can take years,” she explained. “Granted, I'm no linguist, but I know enough about neurology to know that this is highly unusual. Young children, for example, are very adept at learning new languages. It generally gets harder as one grows older, due to a reduction in neuroplasticity. Young minds are more malleable, they form new connections between neurons at a far higher rate. You see the phenomenon a lot in expat families, where the children become fluent in the language very rapidly, and the parents tend to struggle. The neuroplasticity in these aliens is higher than anything I've ever seen, and their memories are flawless. Those factors combined result in an ability to learn at a pace that has no precedent. They aced the memory puzzles, they only needed to see a complex series of shapes and patterns once in order to reproduce it, even half an hour later.”
  480.     “They don't sound so smart to me,” Jaeger muttered, nodding at the nearest alien to get its attention. “Hey you, what's your name?”
  481.     “Shoes,” it replied.
  482.     “What you fail to understand, Lieutenant, is that although they appear to be talking at the level of an infant, they've achieved that after only a few hours. Most human babies don't even start speaking until they're around six months old, and it usually takes two years before they start forming simple sentences. At this rate, they might be fluent in our language within only a few days.”
  483.     “What we need to do is get them to tell us where they came from,” he replied, watching as one of the bird-like reptiles bowed its head and appeared to fall asleep inside its camouflaged suit. It was perched on top of a miscellaneous crate, maybe six feet off the deck, like a pigeon sitting on a telephone pole with its long tail held out straight for balance.
  484.     “We need to build up to that,” Evans said, “we don't want to confuse them by bombarding them with information too quickly.”
  485.     “Why not just show them a map of the system and get them to point to their base?”
  486.     “They might not even be native to this system, and besides, they wouldn't know what we were asking them. We have to take things slow.”
  487.     “So far they've only been repeating the words that they hear,” Jaeger said, glancing down at the alien that was sitting beside him on the floor. “How can we be sure that they even know what they mean?”
  488.     “I'm certain that they've understood the contextual use of certain words,” Evans replied. “Here, watch this.” She held up the tablet computer and pointed to it, getting the attention of the nearest alien. “What is this?”
  489.     “Tablet,” the alien chirped.
  490.     “What is this?” Evans repeated, pointing to the fighter that was resting on the deck beside them.
  491.     “Beewolf,” the alien said in its strange, high pitched voice.
  492.     “They're even picking up human gestures too,” Evans concluded as she turned her eyes back to her tablet and took some more notes. “Remarkable...”
  493.     “And what do we know about their language?”
  494.     “Not much,” Evans admitted. “If I had to guess, I'd say that they lack the vocal cords that humans and Borealans have. They likely have a syrinx, it's a vocal organ used by birds, located at the base of the trachea where it joins to the lungs. Mammals have a larynx,” she said as she gestured to her throat. “It's an organ at the top of the neck that houses the vocal folds, mucous membranes that are stretched across the windpipe and which vibrate to modulate the flow of air being expelled. A syrinx, on the other hand, has vibrating membranes that are controlled by minute muscles that line the entire structure. They can even control the left and right valves of the syrinx independently to produce two distinct sounds at the same time.”
  495.     “So that's why they sound like parrots?”
  496.     “Possibly, yes. As for the color displays...I can't guess. It must have more basis in culture than biology.”
  497.     “They remind me of a cuttlefish,” Jaeger mused. “You know, those squid-like creatures that have flashing colors along their bodies?”
  498.     “Chromatophores? You may be onto something there, perhaps they have bioluminescent cells beneath their suits that they use to communicate, and these panels are a technological solution to having to conceal them beneath a space suit. Chameleons can change the color of their scales to match their environments or to express emotion, after all. It's not unheard of in reptile species...”
  499.     “We could just ask one of them to take its helmet off,” Jaeger suggested. He turned to his tiny companion and nodded to the creature, then mimed taking off a helmet. It cocked its head at him, and he repeated the gesture. “Take your helmet off, little guy.”
  500.     “Little guy,” it repeated, followed by a whistle. It seemed to understand his request, placing its hands to either side of its helmet and tugging it off. Evans and Jaeger watched as the alien pulled off the space helmet, revealing a head as round and as smooth as it had first appeared. There was no hair, no quills, just more flush scales. As it raised the helmet above its head, Jaeger noticed that the 'pigtails' that dangled from the back of the helmet were filled with what looked like a pair of scaly tentacles, the same color and texture as the rest of its skin. They were prehensile, like twin tubes of muscle, flopping out of the recesses and flexing.
  501.     “Tentacles on the back of its head?” Evans wondered, clearly as surprised as Jaeger was. “For what purpose?”
  502.     The two tubes suddenly became firm, the muscles within tensing, the dangling tentacles pointing straight out from the skull like long horns. There was an explosion of color, a rainbow halo appearing around the alien's head, at once alarming and hypnotic.
  503.     They were feathers! It looked as if the alien was now wearing a giant feather headdress, like something that you might see at a Brazilian carnivale or on a peacock's tail. The two muscular tubes had been concealing vibrant and colorful plumes, layered one on top of the other so that when they shifted, different shades were exposed. It must have such fine control over them, a wave of indigo and violet passing through the magnificent crown in a fluttering wave, much like what he had seen on their LCD panels. They caught the light beautifully, shimmering and iridescent, Jaeger unable to tear his eyes away from the display.
  504.     It seemed that the creature had only been stretching, because a second later, the feathers collapsed back into their fleshy sheaths, invisible now as the tentacle-like appendages went limp and dangled down the back of its suit. It held its helmet in its hands, glancing between the two humans.
  505.     “Not chromatophores, feathers!” Evans gasped. “Of course, more avian features, I should have guessed. They can't flex their feathers inside the suits, and so they use these panels to mimic the color patterns. It must have some social function, like expressing emotion, or perhaps signaling prospective mates.”
  506.     “They were using them on their fighters too,” Jaeger added, “maybe they have a tactical purpose?”
  507.     “Perhaps.”
  508.  
  509. ***
  510.    
  511.     They were eventually forced to take a break, Jaeger returning to his quarters to eat and rest. He didn't stay in his bunk for long, there were too many questions running through his mind, so many possibilities that made sleep nigh impossible. He caught four or five hours of shut-eye, and then stopped by a vending machine on his way back down to the hangar, picking up a shrink-wrapped sandwich and a bottle of fruit juice.
  512.     When he returned to Evans, she was still sat in the same spot, dark circles under her eyes as she leaned against a crate amidst the flock of aliens. She looked like she had been working all night, as much as there was a 'night' on a carrier.
  513.     “You should get some rest,” he suggested, “it doesn't look like these guys are going anywhere.” The aliens were all perched nearby like camouflaged gargoyles, one of them chewing on what looked like a candy bar in a silver wrapper.
  514.     “While you were gone, they returned to their ship and came out with food packets,” she said as she suppressed a yawn. “It seems that they've brought supplies with them, they must expect to be here for a while.”
  515.     “They must want the same things that we want,” Jaeger said as he tore open the packaging on his sandwich and took a bite, talking through the mouthful of food. “They want to communicate with us, they want to know where we're from, and they probably want to know what we can do to help one another. It can't have escaped their attention that we came here to fight Bugs.”
  516.     “It all seems so...informal,” Evans complained. “Here we are, making first contact with an alien species, and we're housing them in a busy hangar while a handful of unqualified people try to communicate with them? There should be diplomats here, xenolinguists, this should be a historic event broadcast for all the worlds to see. Yet everything continues on as normal, even the engineers have stopped gawking at them by now.”
  517.     “This is a Navy vessel,” Jaeger replied with a shrug, “this is just the way that the Navy does things. We don't have any diplomats or linguists, we have to make do with what we brought with us. It'd take months to reach the nearest Coalition planet and get a message back to Earth.”
  518.     “I just wish that I could do more,” she sighed, looking up at the nearest alien as it gnawed on its meal with its needle-like teeth.
  519.     Jaeger heard footsteps on the deck, and he turned to see Captain Fielding approaching them, the engineers along his path stopping to salute him as he passed them. He didn't have his Borealan guards with him this time, but Campbell was trailing after him.
  520.     “Doctor Evans, Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said as the pilot snapped to attention. “At ease. Have you made any progress with the aliens?”
  521.     “Some,” Evans said, “they're learning our language remarkably quickly. I estimate that they'll be able to form coherent sentences far sooner than I could have hoped. Days at the most.”
  522.     “Excellent. Their mothership seems to be holding position, it hasn't moved an inch since they sent over the dropship. It appears that they won't be leaving until they get what they want from us, probably the same information that we're trying to get out of them.”
  523.     “Sir, if I may?” Jaeger began. “Is there any word on the missing pilots yet?”
  524.     “Scratcher was recovered safely. He's currently undergoing a routine assessment in sickbay, but he'll make a full recovery,” the Captain replied. “We're still searching for Boomer in the asteroid field. The possibility of encountering more Bugs is slowing down the search effort, as the rescue ships need to be escorted. That and the Oort cloud is a nightmare to navigate, even without the Bugs.”
  525.     “Thank you, Sir,” he said. He was relieved to hear that Scratcher had been recovered safely, but every hour that passed reduced Boomer's chances of survival. If he had survived the crash with his suit intact, it could only support him for the better part of a day at most. The deadline was rapidly approaching. “Captain,” he added, “requesting permission to join the search effort.”
  526.     “Request denied,” Fielding replied. “I understand that you're worried about your wingman, but right now, you can do more good here. I don't know why these aliens have taken such a liking to you, but keep doing whatever it is that you're doing. Once you get them talking coherently, let me know immediately.”
  527.     “Of course, Sir.”
  528.     “I thought that I'd come down to check on our guests,” Fielding continued, “and Campbell has completed his analysis of their ship. I thought that it might help you and Doctor Evans in some way.”
  529.     “Oh yes,” Evans chimed in, “their level of technology could reveal aspects of their cultural development.”
  530.     Fielding nodded to Campbell, and the engineer produced a tablet computer, beginning to read from it.
  531.     “Here are my observations,” he began. “Firstly, this vessel is obviously a spaceplane. Looking at the shape of the hull and the prevalence of heat shielding tiles, we can infer that this is an atmospheric glider, which suggests that the chemical engines that this vessel uses are weaker and less efficient than our own. I estimate that it should be able to break orbit under its own power, but that fuel economy would be an issue. Our own dropships are very efficient, they're able to enter and leave the gravitational well of a planet under their own power several times in succession before they need to be refueled. Not so for this craft. It's also covered in traces of helium-3, and judging by the large thermal output of their carrier, I think it's safe to say that they're using it as reactor fuel. Their shielding isn't very efficient, but fortunately, helium-3 is not radioactive.”
  532.     “Is that different from what we use?” Evans asked.
  533.     “Yes. Their method uses nuclear fusion, which is cleaner and safer than fission, but we use more primitive fission reactors for a very specific reason. This very carrier, for example, houses six nuclear generators whose job it is both to power the ship and to charge the superlight drive. We use simple water to cool those reactors, and they burn at a high enough temperature that the water undergoes a process known as 'thermochemical cracking'. The oxygen and hydrogen molecules are separated, and we can then harvest those molecules to be used for life support in the case of oxygen, and chemical propellant in the case of hydrogen. In this sense, as long as the carrier has access to water ice, which is a very common resource, it can sustain itself and its support fleet for a very long time. Of course, there are still chemicals and elements that we can't get from this process, which need to be restocked when we dock. There are also spent fuel rods that need to be exchanged for new ones, but the process makes any large ship remarkably self-reliant.”
  534.     “And these aliens can't do that?” she asked.
  535.     “No,” he replied gleefully, “helium-3 and deuterium fusion produces heat by generating and containing super-heated plasma. There's no water to crack. They must have brought their chemical propellant with them, which is extremely wasteful. It appears more advanced on the surface, but it’s actually less practical.”
  536.     “Move it along, Campbell,” Fielding sighed. “We all have places to be.”
  537.     “In conclusion, their technology is analogous to our own during the start of the expansion period, when humanity first began colonizing the solar system and venturing into interstellar space. It's a few hundred years out of date by our standards, but otherwise perfectly serviceable. I recommend that as soon as we establish a dialogue with the aliens and negotiate their entry in the Coalition, we start sharing technology. They should be able to implement it rapidly, much of what they use is analogous to our own systems. For example, better magnetic containment of the plasma fields within their reactor would improve efficiency and prevent leakage, and would result in a net improvement to the energy generation on their carrier.”
  538.     “Wait, wait,” Evans interjected. “Aren't we getting a little ahead of ourselves here? We barely know anything about these people, their culture, their history. Who are we to intrude on their home and accelerate their development by hundreds of years overnight? Who knows what that might do to their society?”
  539.     Campbell shrugged dismissively.
  540.     “They're spacefaring, they have superlight technology, and they're clearly not fond of Bugs. Sounds like a prime Coalition candidate to me. Would you rather let them get overrun by the Betelgeusians?”
  541.     “You're making a lot of assumptions,” Evans shot back, her face starting to redden. “We don't know that this is their home system, they may be visitors here, just like us. We don't know the extent of their dealings with the Betelgeusians, or whether their planet or planets are under threat.”
  542.     “If they aren't already under threat from the Bugs, then they will be before long,” the engineer replied. “If these aliens are in jump range of Bugs, then the Bugs are in jump range of wherever they originated. If they can't hold out against the Bugs, then they need us. If they 'can' hold out, then 'we' need 'them'.”
  543.     Evans looked unhappy, but she didn't have a retort. There had been much concern raised over the introduction of advanced technology to primitive planets like Borealis, which prior to contact with the UNN, had only recently discovered gunpowder and had not yet achieved space flight. Proponents of bringing every sapient species that humanity came across into the fold liked to point out that no great catastrophe had yet ensued after handing modern weaponry and spacecraft over to the Borealans, but conservationists would also point out that the balance of power on the planet had been permanently altered. The territories that cooperated with the UNN were given access to advanced technology, and those that didn't were left in the dust, at the mercy of regional powers like Elysia that supplied the UNN with the majority of its Borealan auxiliaries.
  544.     Jaeger had to side with Campbell in this case, however. These aliens were sufficiently advanced that giving them blueprints to build more efficient reactors, or supplying them with railguns wasn't going to change their world overnight. In fact, they were the closest thing to technological parity that humanity had yet encountered. The Borealans and the Krell were a thousand years behind, while the Brokers were a thousand years ahead, but unwilling to share their advancements. Bug biotech was so strange that it was hard to even classify. These new creatures, on the other hand, were only a couple of hundred years off. They were technological neighbors in cosmic terms.
  545.     He glanced over at the aliens. They were listening, cocking their heads and looking between the humans as they perched on their crates. They didn't speak enough English yet to follow the conversation, but they were certainly attentive.
  546.     “Campbell is going to take another look at their ship,” Fielding announced. “Doctor Evans, go get your regulation eight, you look about ready to keel over. The aliens will be here when you get back.” She nodded, struggling to her feet and making her way towards the nearest exit. “Lieutenant, you're on babysitting duty.”
  547.     “Yes, Sir.”
  548.     With that, the Captain turned and followed behind Evans, leaving Jaeger alone with the gaggle of reptiles. He waited for Evans to leave through one of the automatic doors, and then he pulled out his phone. The lead alien, the one who had taken off its helmet, was immediately interested. It chirped, hopping down from its perch on the wing of a nearby Beewolf and crouching beside him. It examined the phone, then warbled to him, reproducing the pop song that Baker had played for it the day before. He laughed, and it cocked its head at him, then mimicked the sound.
  549.     “Yeah, funny,” he explained. “Evans doesn't think that I should overload you with information, but I think you can handle it. Check this out.”
  550.     He opened a video showing a gigantic space station, giant spokes connecting it to a wheel-like torus that rotated to produce artificial gravity. There were Navy vessels all around it like a cloud of ocean-grey insects. It was the Pinwheel, the largest space station in existence. The alien's eyes widened with wonderment, leaning closer as it followed the spinning motion.
  551.     “That's a space station, it's a little like your carrier, right? It's too big for gravity generators, so we have to spin it.”
  552.     He swiped his fingers across the screen, bringing up a picture of a city at night. Towering skyscrapers made from glass and steel punctured the clouds, lights from their innumerable windows and the streets below making them shimmer and gleam. The alien whistled, captivated by the cityscape.
  553.     “That's a human city, where most of us live.”
  554.     Next, he pulled up an animation of Earth, the blue planet spinning slowly as it hung against the black backdrop of space. The alien whistled, watching intently, reaching out with its two-fingered hand to point at the planet.
  555.     “Earth,” he said. “Earth.”
  556.     “Earth,” it trilled.
  557.     “This is where we come from,” he said as he pointed to himself. “My home.”
  558.     “My home,” it repeated, the spinning planet reflecting in its eyes. “Check this out.”
  559.     “Yeah, check this out,” he chuckled. “Earth is my home. Where do 'you' come from?” He pointed at the planet again. “Earth, my home.” He swiped to a map of the local system that he had pulled from the carrier's intranet, a top-down view that showed the orbital paths of the two planets around their star. The system contained two gas giants, one of them orbiting extremely close to its sun. “Is this your home?”
  560.     The alien trilled, reacting to the image. It pointed at empty space, then gave him a beep. “Earth, my home,” it said.
  561.     Jaeger sighed, the alien hadn't understood. It was pointing at an empty region between the two planets, there was nothing there. It was like conversing with a chatbot, the alien appeared to understand what it was saying, but it was only repeating what it heard. It seemed to notice that he was disappointed, cocking its head at him. Its feathers flared, catching his eye as they puffed up, a wave of red and orange passing through them.
  562.     “Earth, my home,” it chirped as it pointed to the empty region again. What did that flurry of color mean, was it frustrated with him?
  563.     “That's empty space,” he said, “there's nothing there.”
  564.     “You're making a lot of assumptions,” the creature snapped, mimicking Evans' voice.
  565.     He was shocked. It had heard Evans say that during her conversation with Campbell, it had remembered the phrase, and it had used it in the correct context. No, surely not. It had to be a coincidence.
  566.     “Alright, let's try this.” He opened the file in an image editor, passing his phone to the alien and showing it how to draw shapes on the touch screen with its finger. It hunched over the device and drew for a few moments, then handed the phone back to him. “Well I'll be...”
  567.     It had drawn a third ring around the star, a planet orbiting between the two gas giants.
  568.     “So you 'are' from this system,” he mused, “I wonder why your planet didn't show up on the scans? Campbell did say that the...what was it called...the method that they use to detect planets might have missed something. I'd better go fetch him.”
  569.     He stood and made his way over to the alien dropship, the helmetless creature trailing behind him. He rounded the vessel and poked his head inside the troop bay, knocking on the hull.
  570.     “Chief Engineer Campbell? I have something that you'll want to see.”
  571.     The ship was powered down, and it was dark inside, but he could still make out some of the details. It wasn't unlike their own dropships, there was a troop bay with odd seats lining the walls, about enough to house a couple of dozen aliens. They were like director's chairs with no backrest, and there were padded panels on the walls behind them with straps that looked like they would go around the chests of the occupants. Perhaps a backrest would have gotten in the way of their thick tails? It was surprisingly cramped for such a large ship, with lots of exposed machinery and piping, and there was a door at the far end that led to the cockpit.
  572.     Campbell was milling about near the door, and he shined a flashlight in Jaeger's face as he turned around.
  573.     “Ah, Lieutenant, is there something you need?”
  574.    
  575. ***
  576.    
  577.     “A third planet in the system? Do you think the information is reliable?” Fielding asked, directing his question towards Jaeger as he examined the edited picture on the phone and scratched his chin.
  578.     “The alien seems to know what it's saying,” he replied with a shrug, “I believe it.”
  579.     “So they 'are' native to HD-217107,” Campbell said, “we should send out a scout. Do we have any ships in the fleet that can make a short jump? A Warden perhaps?”
  580.     “No,” Fielding said, “but we can send out an unmanned probe. It should only take a few days to reach the inner system and report back. The signal will take a few hours to reach us at light speed, but I think it's a better solution than warping the entire fleet in there. We have no idea what kind of hazards we might encounter, and the aliens can't tell us yet.”
  581.     “That gives me a few days to teach them more of our language,” Evans added, “they're learning so quickly that they may well be able to tell us about the composition of the inner system themselves. It's probably not necessary to waste a probe.”
  582.     “I'd rather get confirmation using our own instruments,” the Captain said. “Is there any way that you can accelerate the process so we can get them talking sooner?”
  583.     “Well,” she began hesitantly, “studies have shown that immersion is the most effective way to learn a new language.”
  584.     “What does that mean?”
  585.     “It means immersing them in an environment where people naturally speak that language, rather than teaching them in a more traditional and structured manner. Judging by the way that they mimic the words and phrases that they hear, I think it would be very effective in this case, but I have to say that I think keeping them in a controlled environment is the wisest course of action right now. We need to be able to monitor them, letting them loose in the ship to mingle with the crew is potentially dangerous.”
  586.     “I agree with Doctor Evans,” Campbell said, “the risk of harm coming to the aliens outweighs any potential benefits. We can't let them interact with the crew at large. Imagine the political ramifications if something were to happen to one of them.”
  587.     “But what could possibly happen to them?” Jaeger asked. Evans was an academic, she didn't mingle with the crew outside of their visits to the sickbay. Campbell spent all of his time with his head buried in machinery, he didn't socialize with the general population. Jaeger felt like the entire crew was being tarred with the same brush.
  588.     “You disagree, Lieutenant?” Fielding asked, prompting him to speak freely.
  589.     “With all due respect, Sir, do you trust your crew? I know these people, I put my life in their hands every time I wake up in the morning. I trust the navigators not to drop the Rorke out of superlight inside a star. I trust the engineers to maintain my Beewolf and to make sure that the reactors don't melt down. I eat my meals and shower with the men and women who live on this ship. Pick any random sailor on the Rorke out of a lineup, and I'd trust them with my life. I think it's perfectly safe to let the aliens loose on the carrier, everyone here understands their responsibilities.”
  590.     “That was a heartfelt speech,” Fielding said, a wry smile curling his lips. “If you're so sure that your colleagues can be trusted to keep the aliens out of harm’s way, then you won't mind if I make their safety your personal responsibility?”
  591.     “I...uh...”
  592.     “Then it's decided. Lieutenant Jaeger will be responsible for the safety of the aliens during their time on the Rorke.” Both Evans and Jaeger began to protest, but the Captain's mind was made up, and he silenced them with a wave of his hand. “Keep me informed as to any progress that you make. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must see to the launching of a probe.”
  593.     Fielding turned and set off across the hangar, both Campbell and Evans giving Jaeger a look that said 'don't fuck this up'. He glanced over his shoulder, the brood of little aliens looking up at him expectantly. Surely they couldn't have followed the conversation?
  594.     “Alright, I can do this,” he mumbled. He was trying to reassure himself as much as Campbell and Evans. “Come on aliens, let's go for a walk.”
  595.     He patted his thigh like he was calling a dog over, and they seemed to get the picture. The lead alien took up position behind him, and then the other four fell into line like a row of ducklings.
  596.     “Now, where does one find 'immersion'?” he mused. What was the most social area of the vessel? Probably either the mess hall or the ship's gym, maybe one of the more frequented ready rooms. Perhaps he'd give them the tour. The gym was closest, he would stop there first and see what the aliens made of it.
  597.     Jaeger set off, the line of aliens bobbing along behind him in their strange gait. The hallways of the carrier were narrow and cramped, although they must have seemed larger to the little creatures, their heads turning this way and that on their flexible necks as he led them towards the gym. They mounted several staircases that led to the higher decks, so steep that they might better have been described as vertical ladders. The aliens scaled them easily, their bodies light and agile, leaping two or three steps at a time. The people who passed by them in the corridors paused to stare curiously. Those who had not seen them in person yet had no doubt heard about their alien guests by now.
  598.     After a minute, they arrived at the automatic door to the gym, the aliens filing in after Jaeger as it closed behind them with a whoosh. Before them was an expansive space, at least as far as the carrier was concerned. The walls were lined with racks for dumbbells, and the floor was dotted with gym mats and various exercise machines. There were bench presses, leg curl machines, peck decks, and a few exercise balls.
  599.     Most of the equipment was occupied by humans, but there were a few Borealans too, the mad cats never traveled alone. The felines came from a planet with markedly higher gravity than Earth, and thus when operating in Earth-standard gravity, they were constantly in danger of muscle atrophy. They spent most of their free time working out, and Jaeger got the impression that they'd probably do the same even under conditions that were more suited to them. Describing them as muscular would be an understatement.
  600.     A few of the humans stopped using their machines, one man in shorts and a tank top dropping his dumbbells with a thud and walking over towards Jaeger.
  601.     “So these are the aliens everyone has been talking about?” he asked, crouching down to look at them and wiping his brow. “Little fellas, aren't they?”
  602.     “I'm showing them around,” Jaeger clarified, “feel free to talk to them. They're supposed to be learning English.”
  603.     “Hello there,” the man said, still breathing heavily from his workout.
  604.     “Hello there,” one of the aliens replied in its high pitched voice, mimicking him perfectly. He looked confused for a moment, and then he began to laugh.
  605.     “So they're like parrots? They repeat what people say?”
  606.     “Amongst other things,” Jaeger replied, “watch this.”
  607.     He whistled the tune that Baker had played for them on his phone, and then several of the aliens broke into song, mimicking both the instruments and the vocals as they recited a random excerpt from the piece by memory. It was remarkable how they were able to memorize such a complex series of sounds and words after only hearing it once. It was tinny and incomplete in places, clearly learned phonetically, but the popular song was immediately recognizable.
  608.     More of the gymgoers began to abandon their weights and machines, crowding around the visitors, fascinated by the odd singing and their strange appearance.
  609.     “Where do they come from?” one woman who was wearing a sports bra asked, her hair tied back in a tight ponytail.
  610.     “This system, we believe,” Jaeger replied. “But we don't have confirmation yet.”
  611.     “What are they called?” another man asked.
  612.     “No idea, we're still trying to teach them to speak.”
  613.     “Can they copy 'any' sound?”
  614.     “So far, yeah.”
  615.     The man drew a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen a few times, then another song began to play. This one was fast paced, a rap single, the aliens cocking their heads and chittering as they listened to the beat. He pressed stop, and then the aliens began to repeat it. It was only an approximation, many of the lyrics were slurred, but the rhythm and the melody were downright uncanny. When the humans laughed, that too was mimicked, eliciting more laughter.
  616.     “Go on,” Jaeger said as he gestured to the lead alien, the creature fluttering its feathers at him. There was an impressed murmur from the small crowd, the woman in the sports bra cooing as she admired the colorful plumes. “Go mingle, learn some new words.”
  617.     The aliens looked at one another, chirping and clicking, and then they were off. The little creatures spread out around the gym, scattering to examine the different machines and equipment. One of them approached the Borealans, Jaeger's heart skipping a beat. Oh shit, it probably wasn't a good idea to let the two species interact without supervision. The natural surliness of the Borealans, when combined with the inquisitiveness and boldness of the little reptiles, was a decapitation waiting to happen.
  618.     He pushed through the crowd, nearly stumbling over an errant exercise ball, and came to a stop beside the alien. It was the lead one, without its helmet, its plumage erect and flashing in shades of orange as it peered up at the feline.
  619.     The Borealan was massive, she probably weighed five or six hundred pounds at least, and she was currently benching an enormous barbell. She was wearing a sweat-stained sports bra and a pair of shorts, her pale skin glistening with sudor, the light from the halogen lamps that lined the ceiling accentuating her impressive musculature and making her shine. This variety had fur, but only on the forelimbs, making her look like she was wearing tiger-striped knee socks and elbow gloves. She heaved, baring her sharp teeth, dropping the weight back into its rack with a tremendous crash. The rest of her pack was nearby, the one that had been spotting for her staring at the strange little reptile as it fluttered and chirped.
  620.     She sat up, rolling her massive shoulders and watching the alien out of the corner of her eye.
  621.     “What is 'that'?” she asked disdainfully, pointing to it with a clawed finger.
  622.     “Don't know yet,” Jaeger replied with a shrug.
  623.     “What's it doing here?”
  624.     “I was ordered to give them the run of the ship, to help them learn English. You can talk to them, just...remember your three Ds...”
  625.     The Borealan stared at the reptile, it seemed fascinated by her. Before Jaeger could intervene, it reached up to touch her furry forearm. The feline bared her teeth at it, her brow furrowing in a threat display. She didn't strike it, however. She allowed the alien to run its gloved hand through her striped fur. The same gesture might have netted an overly curious human a dislocated arm, he was shocked that the giant creature didn't react more violently. As a general rule when dealing with Borealans, it was unwise to maintain eye contact for too long, to get in their personal space, or to touch them without solicitation. Perhaps the diminutive stature of the little alien meant that the Borealan didn't see it as a potential threat?
  626.     It drew its arm back and beeped at her cheerfully, the Borealan's round ears twitching.
  627.     “Impudent little thing,” she huffed. “Brave for one so small.”
  628.     “They were out there fighting the Bugs with us in the asteroid field,” Jaeger explained, “I've never seen formation flying like that before.”
  629.     “You kill Bugs, little one?” the Borealan asked. “Then you and I have something in common.”
  630.     She lay back down, gripping her barbell again and hoisting it out of the rack, her muscles bulging from beneath her skin. Jaeger heard a commotion, turning to see that one of the aliens had clambered up a dumbbell rack and was perched atop it like a hawk, surveying the room. It was about six feet off the ground, and the humans beneath it were pointing and chuckling. They certainly had a good sense of balance, something to do with their tails maybe.
  631.     Another was watching a human who was doing bicep curls with a dumbbell, its eyes tracking the movement of the weight as it went up and down. It reached out its gloved hands as if it wanted to see the item. The dumbbell was at least fifty pounds, there was no way the little creature could possibly hold it. Its arms were only as thick as Jaeger's wrists, and it couldn't have weighed much more than a hundred pounds itself.
  632.     The man chuckled, pausing his routine and handing the dumbbell to the little alien. He kept a hold on it, making sure that it didn't fall and crush the creature, letting it rest in the palms of its hands. The reptile hoisted it easily, the man's smile faltering as it lifted the exercise equipment like it weighed nothing at all, turning it over and examining it. They were strong, far stronger than their stature would have suggested. No wonder they could leap so high, there must be a lot of muscle packed into their tiny frames.
  633.     It handed the dumbbell back to the man, who watched it with a confused expression on his face as it sauntered off to inspect a water fountain.
  634.     The little aliens really were fearless, and he could hear half a dozen conversations happening all at once. At least for now, the plan seemed to be working.
  635.  
  636. CHAPTER 5: VAL'BA'RA'NAY
  637.  
  638.     It called to her across the gulf of space, she could smell it in the light, the thousands of eyes and sensory organs that were scattered around the great beast's hull feeding her information in every wavelength and frequency. There was carbon in that atmosphere, the blue tint of oxygen and nitrogen, the green of biomass, and the sparkling reflection of oceans. It was a fertile womb, a haven for her children, an oasis.
  639.     Her scouts had already encountered resistance, local fauna defending their territory. This was to be expected, it was the course of nature, and she had come ready to fight. Her children bristled with weaponry, plasma and resin ready to stab and burn, claws and mandibles for cutting and biting. The struggle for living space was fierce, be it against aliens or her own kin, it was a purifying gauntlet that ensured that only the strongest and fittest inherited the rich soil and liquid waters.
  640.     The journey across barren space had been long and arduous. Resources were dwindling, and her young were ravenous. The Repletes were gaunt, their bellies emptied of their life-sustaining honey. The males were restless, already stretching their wings, eager to fertilize their Queen and begin the process of birthing a new generation of soldiers. She felt something almost akin to hunger, desire, a burning compulsion to claim this planet for herself and to satisfy those instincts.
  641.     She flexed her long, chitinous limbs, feeling the living walls of the vessel closing in around her in her chamber. The blend of meat and metal shifted and heaved, glistening with moisture, the thick column of nerves and wires that linked her twelve-foot frame to its nervous system relaying everything that the behemoth hive ship felt. She could feel the asteroids that battered against its thick shell, the clusters of smaller vessels that were docked to its belly, the thrusters along its body that belched super-heated methane to propel it through the debris field. It was like an extension of her body and her mind, it even had its own, simple intellect that was housed somewhere within the titanic lobes of its brain. She had been adrift for so long that she had almost forgotten what it felt like to use her own eyes, to smell pheromones with her own organs, to have a mind free of trajectory calculations and superlight equations.
  642.     Finally, her exodus had to come to its conclusion, but the ordeal was far from over. Now she must rally her forces to take this planet, to make it her own and to propagate her species. The coming war would be the ultimate test, there could be no surrender, only survival or extinction.
  643.     Chemicals in the gut of the great vessel were mixing, combining to produce an electrical charge that was building up inside the jump drive, ready to propel her and her fleet to the target world. A few more cycles and they would be ready. If their strain was worthy, they would prevail...
  644.  
  645. ***
  646.    
  647.     “Get off the table!” Jaeger complained.
  648.     “High up table,” the alien whistled.
  649.     “I know you like being high up, but we don't walk on the tables in the mess hall. It can't be sanitary.”
  650.     Baker found it amusing, laughing through a mouthful of shepherd's pie as he watched the creature chirp and fluff up its vibrant feathers. The engineer seated to Jaeger's left found it less humorous, sliding his metal tray further away from the disruptive creature as it babbled. The rest of its brood were hanging around nearby, interacting with other crew members and generally being a nuisance. One of them had taken a liking to the Krell, and Jaeger was concerned that it was learning a useless blend of both languages. It kept climbing up them and sitting on their broad shoulders. Fortunately, the giant reptiles were a tolerant bunch.
  651.     “I swear, it's like babysitting toddlers,” Jaeger grumbled.
  652.     The aliens had been making great strides over the last couple of days, they had accumulated quite a large vocabulary just from their interactions with the crew as Evans had predicted. They were running him ragged, however. The only time that he got any reprieve was when they returned to the hangar periodically to eat or sleep. He had noticed that they did everything as a group, a flock, if you will. They seemed to take long pauses between activities to huddle and talk, and when they encountered something new or unexpected, they seemed to stop in their tracks, as if they had to reach some kind of consensus before taking any further action. They were more egalitarian than a Borealan pack, for example, or a military unit. There was no clear leader, at least as far as he could tell. The one who had taken off its helmet was the most vocal and the bravest, it was that one that interacted with him the most, it tailed after him wherever he went like a puppy. Today he was trying to teach them names.
  653.     “Jaeger,” he said, slowly and clearly as he pointed to his chest. “My name is Jaeger.”
  654.     “Human,” it chittered.
  655.     “Yeah, I'm a human, but my 'name' is Jaeger. Look, this is Baker.”
  656.     “Today's menu is shepherd's pie and collard greens,” the alien repeated, “get off the table!”
  657.     Jaeger cradled his face in his hands and groaned. All of the complete sentences that they spoke seemed to have been heard elsewhere. They were starting to form their own sentences now, and Evans said that he should try to encourage that behavior, but they were having problems with grammar. He snapped his fingers, getting the bird's attention.
  658.     “Concentrate, will you? My...name...is...Jaeger. Jaeger.”
  659.     It cocked its head at him.
  660.     “Jaeger,” it repeated.
  661.     “Yes, good! You remember good, right?” The alien beeped affirmatively. “Good, good. Now, what is 'your' name?” he asked as he pointed at the creature. “I am Jaeger, this is Baker, you are..?”
  662.     “Maza'xol'natuih,” it replied. Jaeger snapped to attention, that hadn't been mimicry, that word was new. It was oddly halting, each syllable clearly separated from the rest by a short pause.
  663.     “That's your name? Maza?”
  664.     “Maza'xol'natuih,” it repeated, pointing to itself. “That's my name.”
  665.     He shared a surprised glance with Baker. The alien finally understood names, and it had picked up some contextual words and phrases too. He wanted to test if it could differentiate between different people, turning to point at the alien who was currently perched contentedly on the Krell's shoulders like a giant parrot.
  666.     “What's 'their' name?”
  667.     The creature cocked its head, looking to where he was gesturing.
  668.     “Ayau'pal'lea,” it replied. Jaeger exchanged another glance with Baker. The aliens certainly had complex names, hard to pronounce too. How were they supposed to memorize them?
  669.     “I guess if you learn as fast as these things do, having complicated names isn't much of an issue,” Jaeger mused as he watched the bird-like creature.
  670.     “Give it a nickname,” Baker suggested, gesturing with his fork. “They split their names into sections, right? That's what it sounds like to me. So just call that one 'Ayau'.”
  671.     “I suppose that makes sense, it's certainly easier than trying to say Ayau...pal...whatever.” He pulled out his phone, bringing up the edited image of the system again, with the extra circle that the reptile had drawn.
  672.     “And what is this called, Maza?” The alien cocked its head, brushing the touch screen with its fingers, not seeming to understand. He swiped and brought up a picture of Earth. “Its name is Earth.”
  673.     “Earth,” it repeated. It turned its violet eyes towards Jaeger, reaching out and prodding his chest. He watched as its pupils shifted and dilated, the colored irises were patterned like a nebula when seen so closely. “Earth'nay.”
  674.     “Earth...nay?” he repeated, “what does that mean?”
  675.     It swiped back to the picture of its home system, pointing to the crude circle.
  676.     “Val'ba'ra,” it said, then it pointed to itself again. “Val'ba'ra'nay.”
  677.     “Oh!” Baker exclaimed, “I get it! It's a...fuck, what's it called?” he said as he snapped his fingers. “A suffix, that's it. It's calling you an Earthling, 'nay' is a suffix.”
  678.     “So their planet is called 'Valbara'?”
  679.     Baker nodded emphatically, eating another forkful of pie.
  680.     “Valbara,” Jaeger mused, “that would make them Valbarans. Finally, something I can report to Doctor Evans to prove that I haven't been goofing off.”
  681.     “They're learning fast,” Baker said, “it's a little scary actually. Imagine if they could learn to fly a ship, or field strip an XMR just from a single demonstration?”
  682.     “Evans said that they seemed to have photographic memories,” he replied, watching the alien as it peered back at him. No, not 'the alien', its name was Maza. He wondered if it was male or female, or indeed if their species made such distinctions at all. None of the creatures had taken their camouflaged space suits off in the presence of humans yet. Was that for modesty, or perhaps some other reason? Due to the flashing color panels on their forearms, he had surmised that they likely had feathers there too, just like on their heads. The plumes certainly seemed to express emotion, but they must have other purposes too, nobody would install a massive LCD panel along the side of their ship simply to convey their mood.
  683.     “Jaeger,” Maza said, leaning closer and staring into his eyes. It made him uncomfortable, but he didn't avert his gaze, the alien seeming to stare into his soul. “You Beewolf. You kill Bugs, you and I have something in common.”
  684.     The voice that the reptile was mimicking was that of the Borealan that it had encountered in the gym, course and gruff, with that rolling accent that almost made it sound Russian. Again, he wondered if the alien knew what it was saying. It certainly seemed to be associating the words in a way that made sense, even if they were a patchwork of disconnected voices and accents.
  685.     “And what do you know about Bugs?” Jaeger asked.
  686.     “Bugs, get off the Val'ba'ra!” it chirped in response.
  687.     “We can probably help you out on that front,” he replied. “Here, look at this.” He opened the intranet browser on his phone and pulled up information on alien species. “Borealan, Krell, Broker. Borealis'nay, Krell'nay. See? We work together,” he said as he set the phone on the table, meshing his fingers together. “Coalition, a team.”
  688.     “Coalition kill Bugs.”
  689.     “That's right, that's what we do.”
  690.     The alien picked up the phone, swiping through the pictures. Jaeger reached out to take it back, but the reptile pulled it out of reach, scurrying towards the center of the table and sitting there as its eyes scanned the pages.
  691.     “You think giving it access to the intranet is a good idea?” Baker asked. “There's a lot of info on there, amongst other things...”
  692.     “I mean...it can't teach itself to read, surely? What's the worst that could happen?”
  693.     Baker shrugged, shoveling another forkful of shepherd's pie into his mouth.
  694.    
  695. ***
  696.    
  697.     “I have to shower,” Jaeger said, the aliens that were trailing behind him in an orderly line cocking their heads and looking up at him like curious puppies. “Just...hang around out here and wait until I'm finished. Stay out of mischief.”
  698.     He opened the sliding door to the communal showers, and he was immediately met by a wall of steam, the sound of water hitting the tiled floor echoing through the room. It was large enough to fit maybe twelve humans at once and tall enough that a Borealan could stand inside without having to crouch. There were a good number of these showers spaced out around the carrier, and even then it was sometimes an ordeal to find one that wasn't occupied, considering that there were more than six thousand people living on the ship.
  699.     This one was fairly empty, occupied only by a solitary Krell who was lying on the floor like a giant alligator basking on a shore, taking up one entire side of the communal showers as it let the water cascade over its scales. They liked water, being amphibious creatures, and there were no pools that they could lounge in onboard the carrier. It seemed to be sleeping, its eyes were closed, and its massive body was rising and falling subtly as it breathed.
  700.     He began to strip off his jacket and shirt, stowing them in a nearby locker, but he soon stopped in his tracks. He could feel eyes on his back, and when he turned around, the aliens were standing nearby and peering up at him. Jaeger was used to showering with other people. Men, women, aliens. It hardly mattered, maintaining one's sense of modesty in such a cramped professional environment was basically impossible, you just had to get used to showering with women and seeing the occasional alien junk. The staring of the Valbarans was putting him on edge, however.
  701.     “Shoo,” he said, waving his hand at them. They just stared at him. He sighed, then shrugged and continued to remove his clothing. Who knew, maybe they wanted to see his anatomy. The one named Ayau went off to bother the Krell, rumbling in an approximation of the alien language as it clambered up the creature’s back.
  702.     “Oh, leave him alone,” Jaeger grumbled. “What is it with you and Krell?”
  703.     It wasn't listening, and he noticed that it had closed the visor on its helmet. Did they not like water? He stripped down to his underwear, then hesitated, deciding to keep his shorts on. Something about exposing himself in front of these little creatures felt...odd. The rest of the aliens set off to explore the room, playing with the dials, changing the temperature and the flow of the water as they frolicked beneath it. They also closed their helmets, and he supposed that he wouldn't like to shower with an open helmet either, maybe it would flood the inside of their suits.
  704.     Maza stayed with him, however, watching him intently with its violet eyes. It must be curious, it had never seen a naked human before, after all. Nor any alien for that matter. He felt strange referring to the alien as 'it', he hadn't asked the creature its gender yet, or if its species even had genders. Right now didn't seem like the right time to broach the subject.
  705.     As he moved beneath the stream of the nearest showerhead and set the temperature to his liking, Maza reached up and sealed its helmet. He couldn't see where it was looking beneath the opaque visor. He squirted some shower gel into his hand from a wall-mounted dispenser and began to spread it, coating his arms and upper body in the soapy suds. He was facing the wall, but he could still feel eyes on his back, his instincts informing him that he had an audience.
  706.     When he turned around, Maza had taken a few steps closer, the water splashing on its insulated suit and rolling down its helmet in sheets. The 'snout' of its helmet was only inches away from him, a little below chest height. As he watched, the alien reached over and fumbled with its right wrist. The bulky metal pressure seal popped open with a hiss, and it removed the glove to expose its bare hand. The two fingers and its thumb were tipped with dull claws, covered in the same green scales that were present on its head. Their entire bodies were likely scaly too.
  707.     It reached out towards him tentatively. For a moment, he considered batting it away, but he had no idea if this was appropriate behavior in their culture or not. They didn't seem to have much concept of personal space, and he didn't want to frighten the creature or risk insulting it.
  708.     Its fingers brushed his abdomen, sliding slowly across his soapy skin as if testing its texture. He was suddenly aware of how much he was moving. His abdominal muscles tensed where its fingers roamed, his chest rising and falling, his heart beating as the alien explored him. He noted that its touch was warm, not cool like a Krell. Did that mean that the Valbarans were warm-blooded, like mammals? With the visor closed, he couldn't read its expression, couldn't gauge where it was looking.
  709.     It reached up above its head and took his wrist in its gloved hand. It was surprisingly strong, it had a grip like iron, but it was gentle with him. It guided his hand down and opened his fingers with its ungloved hand, stroking his palm, tickling him. It watched his digits flex, inspecting them, perhaps surprised by the number. After a moment, it placed its palm against his, comparing their two hands. Its scaly skin was as smooth as glass and oddly soft. He hadn't expected it to feel like this, he had assumed that their scales would be rough and dry. It was so small, the span of its fingers just barely filled his palm.
  710.     It was an oddly intimate moment, it made him feel...strange.
  711.     “W-what are you doing?” he mumbled, not knowing if it could even hear him inside that helmet. After a moment, an external speaker crackled to life, and its high-pitched voice came through.
  712.     “Coalition,” it said, interlocking its mismatched fingers with his. “Together.”
  713.     “Uh, yeah...” He drew his hand back, resuming his shower as the little alien watched him. After a moment, it reached out to tug at his shorts, but he gently pushed its grasping fingers away. “Nope, if you want to learn about our anatomy, you can do that on your own time.”
  714.     Maza took a step back, letting him resume his shower, wiping its hand dry on its suit and then locking the glove back into place. Jaeger was accustomed to getting his shower over with quickly, as he was usually on call, and so it was only a couple of minutes before he was drying himself off. Once he had gotten his clothes back on, minus his wet shorts, he noted that the gaggle of little reptiles were all soaked. He sighed, preparing his towel, memories of his attempts to wash his rowdy childhood dog flashing through his mind.
  715.     “Alright you little monsters, line up, you can't go running around the carrier when you're soaking wet.”
  716.     Incredibly, they actually did as he asked, lining up in a row. He dried their suits off one by one with the towel, the sleepy Krell watching the odd scene with one eye open, apparently not interested enough to dedicate two to the task. Their camouflaged clothing was thick and insulated. He couldn't feel much beneath it, and so he was unable to tell if their wide hips and narrow torsos were a result of their biology, or if it was just the shape of their suits.
  717.     When he was done, they followed him out of the room dutifully, off to their next adventure.
  718.  
  719. ***
  720.    
  721.     “Valbara?” Doctor Evans asked, giving the aliens a concerned glance as one of them rummaged through a metal tray of medical tools. She walked over to it and pulled its hand away, the alien chirping its displeasure as it scurried away to examine a rack of lab coats, vanishing into the fabric with only its long tail visible.
  722.     “That's what Maza said,” Jaeger replied with a shrug, “that's the one that took off its helmet for us. It also implied that there are Bugs on their home planet, or maybe there were, it's hard to be sure. They're making progress with the language, ask them something and see for yourself.”
  723.     “Very well,” she said, clearing her throat. “Maza, come here.” The little alien trotted over, its head bobbing with every step, looking up at the physician expectantly. “Do you know where you are?”
  724.     “Rorke, carrier of Earth'nay,” it replied.
  725.     “Earth...nay?” Evans asked, turning to Jaeger and raising an eyebrow.
  726.     “I think it means Earthling, or 'from Earth', that's their word for us. They call themselves 'Valbaranay'.”
  727.     “And what is your name?” Evans continued.
  728.     “Maza'xol'natuih.”
  729.     “How many fingers am I holding up?” she asked, extending two fingers.
  730.     “Two finger,” Maza said, followed by a beep.
  731.     “I have to admit, I had my doubts when the Captain ordered us to let them loose on the ship, but it seems to be doing wonders for their vocabulary. None of them have fallen into a waste disposal chute or been sat on by a Krell so far, so I guess I have you to thank for that, Lieutenant.”
  732.     “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Doc.”
  733.     “I wonder if they'll consent to a physical examination now?” she pondered aloud.
  734.     “Worth a try,” Jaeger said, “they've not taken their suits off as far as I know. Not outside their dropship, at least. I'm getting pretty curious about what they have hidden under there myself.”
  735.     “Maza,” Evans began, crouching down to eye level with the creature as it stared at her with its unblinking eyes. “Would you remove your clothes so that I can examine you? Do you understand?”
  736.     She mimed taking her clothes off, and Maza cocked its head.
  737.     “Nope, if you want to learn about our anatomy, you can do that on your own time.”
  738.     Evans stood rapidly, scowling at Jaeger as he laughed.
  739.     “Did you teach it to say that?”
  740.     “At least it understood the question,” he chuckled.
  741.     “I suppose so. You know that these aliens mimic the accents and mannerisms of the people they copy, right? If someone teaches them to curse as a joke, we'll know who did it.”
  742.     “I promise not to teach them to curse, Doctor.”
  743.     “If they won't consent to an examination then there's not much more that we can learn from them,” Evans grumbled, clearly disappointed by Maza's reaction. “With a little more practice, perhaps we can simply ask them what we want to know.”
  744.     “Yes, Ma'am. By the way, have you heard anything about Scratcher?”
  745.     “Who or what is 'Scratcher'?” she asked.
  746.     “He was the Beewolf pilot that got brought in recently, Captain Fielding told me that he was undergoing evaluation in the sickbay.”
  747.     “I'm not aware of any-”
  748.     “This your female?” Maza asked, interrupting Evans as it thrust the phone that it had swiped earlier into Jaeger's face. On the screen was a picture of a Borealan taken from some kind of fact sheet, showing its internal workings like the bone structure and placement of the organs.
  749.     “My female?” Jaeger asked, confused. “I don't have a girlfriend if that's what you're asking. You should ask Scratcher about that when he gets out of the infirmary.”
  750.     “No,” the alien chirped, frustrated. “You species female.”
  751.     “You're asking if the Borealans are the females of my species? Of course not, why do you say that?”
  752.     Maza seemed surprised, examining the picture again.
  753.     “You smaller.”
  754.     “So? Should a male be smaller than a female?”
  755.     “Males smaller than females.”
  756.     “Not for humans, nor Borealans for that matter,” Evans added. “Our genders are about the same size. Is that not the case on Valbara? Your friends all seem to be about the same height,” she said as she glanced at the other aliens who were currently exploring her office. Again Maza seemed confused, cocking its head at the humans.
  757.     “No males.”
  758.     “There are no males with you?” Jaeger asked. “Why?”
  759.     “Male can't fight.”
  760.     “That's plural,” he corrected, “males can't fight.”
  761.     “Males can't fight.”
  762.     “Better, now why can't males fight?”
  763.     “Males is for...” Maza thought for a moment, “raise young.”
  764.     “Strange, so your gender roles must be the reverse of ours,” Evans wondered. “I'm somewhat surprised to see that kind of attitude prevailing in such an advanced species.”
  765.     “Don't make judgments just yet, Doctor. Their males really could be three feet tall for all we know.”
  766.     “It wouldn't be unheard of,” she said. “In fact, mammals are quite unusual in being a patriarchal species. In most animal classes, it's the females who are larger and more dominant than the males. In insect and fish species, the female can sometimes be many times larger than the male counterpart, and quite anatomically distinct. If you were to see a male and a female golden silk spider side by side, for example, you could be forgiven for assuming that they were entirely separate species. The female is six times the size of the male. Perhaps we can forgive our guests for making the same assumptions about us.”
  767.     “So that means these guys, or rather gals, are all females?”
  768.     “It appears so,” Evans replied.
  769.     “I suppose we must all look the same to them if they can't tell our males apart from our females.”
  770.     “Well, we're a lot less sexually dimorphic than many species. We don't have any flamboyant crests, no antlers or peacock feathers, nothing to differentiate us if we're fully clothed. Perhaps that's a lesson for a different time, however. I'd rather keep my lab coat on today.”
  771.     “So what do you think?” Jaeger asked, “are they ready to talk to the Captain yet?”
  772.     “I'd give them another day. This one, Maza, seems especially good at reproducing human speech. She's almost got it down. Make sure you keep her talking, give her lots of one-on-one practice.”
  773.     “Will do,” he said, patting his thigh to get the attention of the Valbarans. “Come on girls, let's give Doctor Evans some peace. No...put that back,” he chided as one of the aliens lifted a microscope from the worktop. “Maza, what's this one called?”
  774.     “Coza'ma'lotl,” she replied with a trill.
  775.     “Right, Coza then. Coza, come here.”
  776.     The curious alien set the item down and trailed after him reluctantly as he led them out of Evans' office and into one of the Rorke's many winding corridors.
  777.  
  778. ***
  779.    
  780.     “So you're female?” Jaeger asked, Maza bobbing along beside him as they walked.
  781.     “You male?”
  782.     “Yeah, I'm male.”
  783.     She looked him up and down, almost as if she didn't believe him.
  784.     “Earth'nay males fight?”
  785.     “Where I come from, everyone fights. Some are better suited to certain jobs than others, you'll probably find more male Marines than females, but we all do our part. What are your males like?”
  786.     “Small,” she replied.
  787.     “Describe them to me, it's good practice.”
  788.     She hesitated for a moment, thinking hard.
  789.     “Male has...”
  790.     “Plural,” Jaeger added, “males have...”
  791.     “Males have beautiful feathers,” she said, gesturing to her head and puffing up her crown of colorful plumes. They must be impressive indeed if she was suggesting that hers weren't beautiful in comparison. “Smaller, weaker, but pretty.”
  792.     “And what about your homeworld? What's it like? Do you have jungles, forests, oceans?”
  793.     She cocked her head at him, and he gestured for her to pass him the phone, then he pulled up some vistas of Earth's different environments. There were mountains and rolling hills, verdant forests, and grassy savannas. He passed the device to her, and she examined it, stopping in the hallway as her friends crowded around to see. She swiped through the pictures, her eyes wide, chittering and whistling to her companions.
  794.     “Not so different,” she finally said, “your world is beautiful. What is this?”
  795.     He leaned over to see what she was pointing at. It was a giraffe in one of the nature shots, the sun setting behind it on the Serengeti.
  796.     “That's an Earth animal,” he explained, “it's called a giraffe.”
  797.     “What's this?” another asked, and he recognized her as Ayau due to her tan scales.
  798.     “That's a Zebra.”
  799.     “This, this!” another warbled as she pointed at a picture of an elephant. She had far darker scales than her companions, a deep shade of spinach green visible beneath the open visor on her helmet. She looked up at him eagerly as she waited for his reply.
  800.     “That's an elephant,” he explained. “I don't believe we've been introduced, what's your name?”
  801.     “Xico'hte'otl,” she announced as she patted herself on the chest, then she went back to staring at the pictures. The aliens were fascinated, and he wondered what kind of fauna might exist on Valbara.
  802.     “Come on,” he said. “I'll take you to one of the ready rooms, and we can put on a nature documentary for you. You'll be able to see lots of Earth animals.”
  803.     They seemed excited by the prospect, pausing for a moment to huddle together like football players before a game. They always seemed to do that whenever he suggested a new activity, it was like they wouldn't act unless each one of them was in agreement on exactly what they'd be doing. After a few moments, they formed an orderly line and began to follow him again as he set off down the narrow corridor.
  804.     “You said earlier that you wanted to get the Bugs off Valbara,” he said. “Have they invaded? Did they attack you?”
  805.     Maza considered again, choosing her words carefully.
  806.     “Val'ba'ra'nay have two worlds, another star, Ker'gue'la. We make new life there, grow, spread for thirty rotations. Aliens appear, we meet Bugs. They are not friendly like Coalition.”
  807.     “They kill Ker'gue'la'nay,” the one called Coza added, “take world. Survivors flee to Val'ba'ra, return home. We convert carriers for defend, make new weapons, wait many rotations for Bugs to find us again. Now they come, but Coalition come too.”
  808.     “Maybe this time will be different,” Maza said with a flurry of yellow feathers.
  809.     “Maybe Earth'nay protect Val'bra'ra,” Ayau said with another flash of colorful plumes.
  810.     Jaeger's heart sank. So the Valbarans had been a multi-planet species at one point, for at least thirty years, or however long a Valbaran 'rotation' was. They must have discovered superlight travel relatively recently, and they had done what every species who discovers it eventually does, expand their living space. Then one day the Bugs had arrived, their compound eyes fixed on the habitable planet, and they had driven the Valbarans from their colony. He had seen what happened to colonies that succumbed to the Betelgeusians, the insects had no qualms with genocide and war crimes, they saw the defenders as simple vermin to be eradicated by any means necessary. The survivors had fled back to their home system, and the Valbarans had geared up to defend it from what they probably assumed to be an imminent invasion by an organized force.
  811.     It seemed that they didn't yet know the true nature of the Bugs and how they propagated, what their goals were. It was a fact that the Coalition had only recently discovered themselves. There was no organized Bug armada, there was no communication between their hives. Once a new Queen was birthed on a Bug colony, she was compelled to build a small fleet, and then she had to leave in search of a new planet where she could found her own colony. It was likely that the fleet that was currently scouting the Oort cloud of HD-217107 had originated from the very same world that the Valbarans had surrendered years prior.
  812.     “We won't let them take Valbara,” he said confidently, “the Rorke will stop them.”
  813.     “Coalition fights Bugs,” Maza replied, her feathers fluttering in shades of yellow and orange. She seemed hopeful, was that the emotion conveyed by her plumage?
  814.     “Rorke smash Bugs,” Coza declared, her feathers standing up in shades of red and orange. “Railgun, big railgun, Beewolf!” The other aliens chirped in agreement,  She certainly seemed to be the more aggressive of the bunch, she was a hair larger than the other members of her flock too. Maybe she was the muscle.
  815.     “Damn straight, that's our job,” Jaeger said with a nod.
  816.     He wasn't sure that she fully understood, but she seemed happier now. It really had been a stroke of luck that they had happened upon each other when they had. If the UNN had chosen to patrol this sector of space a week earlier or later, they might not have crossed paths at all. The Rorke might have continued on, none the wiser of the mortal struggle that was about to ensue in the humble little star system. But now they had a chance to help these people, and that was what the job was all about when it came down to it. That was why everyone joined the UNN, even if that original intent often became lost in the realities of war. A technologically and militarily superior force had been dropped into the lap of the Valbarans at just the right moment, like the answer to a prayer.
  817.  
  818. CHAPTER 6: CALLSIGN
  819.    
  820.     “The prosperity of the pride depends on a successful hunt,” the narrator said as a lioness stalked through the brush, her straw-colored coat shining in the hot African sun. Her round ears pricked up, and the camera panned over to a warthog, the tusked animal raising its head from the ground to sniff at the air intently as clouds of flies swarmed around it. “She approaches, silent, waiting for the perfect moment to strike...”
  821.     There was a surge of drums as the lioness leapt from her hiding spot, the footage playing back in slow motion as she powered through the undergrowth towards her quarry. The warthog skidded as it took off, kicking up a cloud of dust as it fled from the charging predator. It was too late, however. The beast sank its claws into the warthog, dragging it to the dusty ground and biting at the back of the animal's vulnerable neck. Her companions joined her, the warthog struggling ardently as sounds of snarling and growling came through the speakers.
  822.     “It has been a while since their last kill,” the narrator continued, “the hungry pride piles in to claim their share of the spoils.”
  823.     One of the lionesses rose from the carcass as the camera zoomed in on her, her furry mouth stained red with blood. The Valbarans were transfixed, perhaps not understanding the subtleties of the narration, but reveling in the scenes of this alien planet and its magnificent species all the same. Jaeger was sat behind them, watching their reactions as much as the documentary, and he couldn't help but feel a sense of pride as they stared at the wall-mounted monitor. Would the Rorke soon be orbiting their home planet? Would he be able to see Valbaran documentaries about their native life, if indeed they made such things?
  824.     He heard the whoosh of the automatic door opening behind him, turning to look over his shoulder. Scratcher was standing in the doorway, one arm in a sling.
  825.     “Thought I was gonna have to search the whole carrier for you,” he laughed.
  826.     Jaeger rose to his feet and hurried over to his friend, trapping him in a bear hug, Scratcher wincing as he bumped into his arm.
  827.     “Sorry,” Jaeger said, taking a step back and patting Scratcher on the shoulder. “I kept asking after you, but they wouldn't tell me shit. Glad to see you're still in one piece.”
  828.     “More or less,” Scratcher replied, gesturing to his bandaged arm. “Caught it on the edge of the cockpit on my way out, turned the bones to powder. Luckily, it didn't breach the suit, or I'd have to get one of those prosthetic limbs that the station chief is so proud of. Looks like I'm gonna be grounded for a few weeks.”
  829.     “You're in better shape than your Beewolf, let's put it that way.”
  830.     “Did Boomer and Scorch make it out alright?”
  831.     Jaeger's face fell, and he slowly shook his head.
  832.     “Baker is fine, but...they never found Boomer. The rocks blocked his beacon, and that's if he survived his Beewolf breaking up.”
  833.     “Fuck...”
  834.     “I wanted to go help look for him, but they wouldn't let me.”
  835.     “Yeah, I heard that you've become the resident alien-sitter.”
  836.     “Wasn't my idea, they just seem to like me, they won't leave me alone.”
  837.     “So these guys were what you saw in the belt?” Scratcher asked, watching as the aliens left their seats and trotted over to him. “Curious little things...”
  838.     The Valbarans peered up at him, then Maza noticed his arm, pointing to it with her two-fingered hand.
  839.     “You injured?”
  840.     “They talk?” Scratcher asked, and Jaeger nodded. “Yeah, my arm was broken during the battle. Fucking Bugs totaled my Beewolf.”
  841.     “You are Beewolf pilot?” Coza asked, her companions exchanging glances.
  842.     “Yeah, unfortunately, I checked out before you guys showed up.”
  843.     To both their surprise, Maza and her friends extended the tentacle-like sheaths on their heads, the feathers puffing up into a display and turning a shade of blood red. They clasped their hands in front of them, the LCD panels on their forearms flooding the same shade of crimson. It was like some sort of salute or ritual. Scratcher shot Jaeger a questioning look, but he just shrugged. Realizing that they didn't understand, Coza elaborated as best she could.
  844.     “You shed blood in battle,” she explained, “We give respect.”
  845.     “Oh,” Scratcher said, “okay then. Thanks.”
  846.     The aliens collapsed their feathers back into their protective sheaths, watching the pair of humans as they interacted.
  847.     “So what are you doing with these guys?” Scratcher asked. “I'm surprised that the Captain is giving them the run of the ship.”
  848.     “I'm supposed to be teaching them English, they're learning really quickly. A couple of days ago they couldn't speak a word, and now they're almost fluent.”
  849.     “Is there going to be a service for Boomer? I know he's technically MIA, but he couldn't realistically survive for this length of time, assuming he lived through his ejection. His life support would have run out after about a day.”
  850.     “I think they're still searching for him. Better wait a little longer and see if they can recover anything. I never liked the empty casket deal, it feels...weird, y'know?”
  851.     “Yeah. Fuck man, I feel like I was only talking to him yesterday. How about we go find Scorch and hit the bar? You're on alien duty, and I'm grounded, so we can blow some creds on booze and make fun of him for not being able to drink because he's on call. It's what Boomer would have wanted.”
  852.     “Yeah, alright. I’ll have to bring these guys along, but they were fighting with us, it feels appropriate. If they hadn't turned up when they did, you'd probably be drinking alone today.”
  853.     “Any friends of Bullseye are friends of mine,” Scratcher said, grinning at the aliens.
  854.  
  855. ***
  856.    
  857.     The bar was suitably dingy, it was a fairly small room in comparison to the galley or the mess hall, not much more than a dozen stools lined up in front of a crescent-shaped countertop. The Rorke had four bars spaced throughout the ship, and recreational drinking was tolerated under certain conditions, as the morale boost for crew members who might be stationed on the vessel for months at a time was significant. You had to be off call, meaning that you weren't on standby waiting to rush to your post if the shooting suddenly started, and you were limited to two alcoholic beverages per twenty-four hour period. If you got caught wandering the halls while over the limit, you'd get thrown into the brig until you sobered up, and you'd also get a dock to your pay for the rest of the voyage.
  858.     This one was vacant, probably because much of the crew was on duty due to the recent encounter with the Bugs in the belt. Rather than having a human bartender sitting behind the counter, these were staffed by robots. You entered your credit account number, selected the beverage that you wanted from a touch screen, and then a disembodied mechanical arm would mix it for you. It couldn't listen to your problems, but it was programmed to prevent you from getting wasted.
  859.     The three pilots sat at the bar while the aliens milled about nearby, observing as the humans started their strange ritual, tapping in their orders and then watching as the silver arm whirred to life. The bottles were inserted into recesses in the wall behind it, and it pulled them out with mechanical precision, mixing and shaking the drinks before placing them on the faux wood bar in front of the patrons.
  860.     Jaeger and Scratcher sipped at their mixed drinks, trying to make their small allowance of alcohol last, while Baker could only drink soda. They reminisced about Boomer, and about their time at the flight academy, sharing humorous stories about his exploits.
  861.     “Did he really smash all the windows?” Baker asked.
  862.     “He did,” Scratcher laughed. “He flew over the town at about two thousand feet, but he was going hypersonic, Mach five in atmosphere. The sonic boom smashed a bunch of windows and set off car alarms for miles. It's a miracle he didn't get kicked out of the Navy. He was cleaning toilets after that stunt for months.”
  863.     “Might'a been better for him if he had,” Baker mumbled, taking a swig from his glass of soda.
  864.     “Nah,” Jaeger said, “he loved it out here. He loved flying. If you built a time machine and went back to the day that he joined up, and then told him his fate, I think he'd still sign his name on that form regardless. The same could happen to any one of us, but we're not going to quit, are we?”
  865.     “Here here,” his friends chorused, taking a drink. The Valbarans had been sitting patiently, but now Maza sidled up to Jaeger, tugging at his clothes to get his attention.
  866.     “What is this ritual?” she asked, her voice low. She was being respectful, she knew that something of significance was happening, but not exactly what.
  867.     “We're mourning a friend,” he explained as he looked down at her from atop his bar stool, “he was lost in the battle.”
  868.     “Ah. This is...Earth'nay funeral?”
  869.     “Not quite, we're just getting together to remember him. There will be a funeral later.”
  870.     “Do we intrude?” she asked, her fleshy pigtails twitching as if she wanted to puff up her feathers but was restraining herself.
  871.     “No, no. You guys fought with us, you're welcome here.”
  872.     “What was his name?” she asked.
  873.     “Boomer”
  874.     The Valbarans clasped their hands together again, putting on another display of red feathers and flashing LCD panels.
  875.     “What are they doing?” Baker whispered.
  876.     “Saluting Boomer,” Scratcher explained, “it's a thing they do.”
  877.     “I'd buy them a drink, but for all I know, the alcohol could melt them or make them explode,” Baker added.
  878.     The humans took another drink, and then the aliens stowed their feathers, Jaeger and Maza sharing a lingering glance. He felt a new appreciation for her, seeing her in a different light. She was no longer a strange and sometimes silly alien that climbed on tables and mimicked pop songs, she was an emotional creature, she understood both his loss and his pride on some level. A Krell would fight viciously to protect its friends, and it would mourn their loss, but would it truly understand the significance of toasting to their memory? A Borealan would seek to avenge its pack mates through any means necessary, but honor and vengeance were moral absolutes in their culture, they were expected to mourn in specific ways. This little alien understood him, however. She knew what was going through his mind, he could feel it in the way that she was looking at him.
  879.     “A toast to our new allies,” Jaeger said, elbowing Baker who was sitting beside him. “To the Valbarans, without whom we might have ended up as Bug chow.”
  880.     “To the Valbarans,” they echoed, taking a drink.
  881.     “You know,” Scratcher said, leaning around Baker to address the aliens directly. “UNN pilots get a callsign, like a nickname. You guys are all pilots, right? If you're going to fly with us, then you need a callsign. Tradition dictates that we pick one for you.”
  882.     Maza cocked her head at Jaeger, but he just grinned at her.
  883.     “Me first,” Baker said, clearing his throat and waving his finger between the five aliens. He selected Ayau, narrowing his eyes at her as she glanced to her fellows nervously. “What's this one called?”
  884.     “That one's name is Ayau,” Jaeger said.
  885.     “You, your callsign will be...Velocity.”
  886.     “What? That's terrible,” Scratcher complained.
  887.     “It's a play on words!” Baker protested. “Velocity 'cos they're going fast, and it's also like velociraptor. What, didn't you like dinosaurs as a kid?”
  888.     “No, I was more into not being a fucking dork. Me next,” Scratcher said, singling out another of the aliens. He selected Coza, the alien standing defiantly with her hands on her wide hips. “Your callsign will be...Eagle Eye. I hear those lasers you Valbarans use are pinpoint accurate.”
  889.     “Let me do another,” Baker said as he once again singled out one of the five aliens. “That one, what's her name?”
  890.     “I don't know what that one is called,” Jaeger admitted, turning to the little alien. “Can you tell us your name?”
  891.     This one seemed a little timider than the rest, almost as if she didn't want to draw attention to herself. When Jaeger spoke to her, she shuffled backwards a little, like she was trying to fade into her flock and avoid scrutiny.
  892.     “Her name is Tacka'hauh'qui,” Maza volunteered.
  893.     “That's quite a mouthful,” Scratcher said, taking another sip of his drink.
  894.     “Tacka, then,” Baker continued. “Tacka, your callsign will be...Ghost.”
  895.     The fourth alien cocked her head at them, perhaps not really understanding what was happening, but wanting to be included all the same. It was Xico, the one with the dark scales.
  896.     “Xico'hte'otl,” she said as she pointed to her chest.
  897.     “Xico,” Scratcher said, resting his injured arm on the counter as he held his drink in the other. “For you, Camouflage. That shade of green makes me think of woodland camo.”
  898.     “Not bad, not bad,” Baker said. “Let Bullseye do one next.”
  899.     Jaeger looked down at Maza, scratching his chin as he wracked his mind for a good nickname.
  900.     “Laserbird,” he said.
  901.  
  902. ***
  903.  
  904.     Jaeger bade farewell to his friends, setting off back towards the hangar. The aliens trailed after him, bobbing along behind him as they followed him through the twisting bowels of the carrier. The bar was located far at one end of the vessel, towards the aft, and it was somewhat of a trek to get back to the hangar from there.
  905.      After what must have been half a mile of walking through branching corridors and up and down vertical staircases, Maza signaled that she and her friends needed a breather. The aliens stood in place, seeming to rest, and yet they were standing upright.
  906.     “Don't you want to sit down?” he asked. “I figured you might have trouble keeping up on those little legs.”
  907.     “Sit? Why?” she asked.
  908.     “You don't have to stand up, you know. Aren't you uncomfortable?”
  909.     She seemed as confused as he was, cocking her head at him.
  910.     “Earth'nay must sit to rest?”
  911.     Something was up, and he circled her as he examined her legs. They looked like those of a dinosaur, or some kind of bird. The Valbarans stood on their two toes, and they had a slightly forward-leaning posture that made them look as if they might fall over without their balancing tails. Her digitigrade limbs were very thick and strong around the thighs, and they tapered into thinner, more bony shins. It was hard to tell if the bulk around their legs was biological, or a result of their suits. Perhaps they had some kind of padding or electronics housed there. The same was true for the way that their wide hips tapered into such a thin waist, it just didn't look natural to him.
  912.     He noticed that they weren't shifting their weight from foot to foot as a human would have done while standing in one place for a long time, they were perfectly level, their legs immobile. All five of the aliens were standing in the exact same posture.
  913.     “Have you...locked your leg joints?” he asked.
  914.     “This is unusual for Earth'nay?”
  915.     Amazing, so that was how they were able to crouch and perch on crates for such long periods of time. When they tired, they just locked their legs, and their skeletons would take the load off their muscles.
  916.     “We can't do that,” he replied, “we have to sit down. Can you sleep standing up too?”
  917.     “Earth'nay cannot?”
  918.     Well, now he had something of interest to relay to Evans, at least.
  919.     “Earth'nay have stamina,” she continued, “walk for long time. Strong.” She looked him up and down with those unblinking eyes, and for a moment he felt a little self-conscious. She met his gaze unflinchingly, and when he blinked, it seemed to please her. “I wonder how well you fight, will have to find out some time soon.”
  920.     He remembered how easily one of the aliens had lifted that massive dumbbell in the gym. Despite their size, they seemed to be extraordinarily strong, so why was she praising his stamina just for walking around the ship?
  921.     “You speech is getting much clearer,” he said, making small talk as he waited for the aliens to recover. “When Doctor Evans told me that you'd probably be speaking fluently in less than a week, I didn't really believe her. You learn quickly, at least more quickly than what we're used to. I feel like I could have a real conversation with you now.”
  922.     “You asked me of my world,” she said, “I was distracted by your animals.”
  923.     “Yeah, I remember, I think I'd be distracted too if you showed me pictures of Valbaran animals.”
  924.     “We have many, they will impress. Soon I hope to show you.”
  925.     “Show me? Pictures?”
  926.     “No,” she said, struggling to find the words. “Soon we will visit Val'ba'ra, my flock and I believe it to be so. There I will show you my world, as you have shown me your Rorke.”
  927.     “I hope you're right, I'll look forward to that. I could do with some shore leave after spending so many months cooped up on the carrier.”
  928.     “I like you, Jaeger,” she said as she looked him in the eyes again. Her irises were so strikingly violet, reflective and shiny under the harsh halogen lighting of the ship, the slits of her reptilian pupils expanding into large circles as she watched him. She fluttered her feathery headdress, shades of pink and red flashing, her companions sharing glances between one another. He felt like he was being left out of the loop, their subtle feather displays completely outside of his understanding. “You are not like other males, you are...competent.”
  929.     “I guess I'll take that as a compliment,” he chuckled.
  930.  
  931. CHAPTER 7: HD-217107
  932.    
  933.     “The findings of the probe confirm the claims of the aliens,” Campbell said, pacing in front of the table in the briefing room as a hologram of the system flickered above it. Jaeger was once again in attendance, along with Doctor Evans, some of the more senior personnel, and the Valbarans. The Captain was standing beside the engineer, his hands clasped behind his back as he examined the ghostly display. “There is a third planet in the HD-217107 system, between the orbits of the two gas giants. Its distance from the star is calculated to be one point two AU, with an orbital period of one point three Earth-standard years. Due to the luminosity of the star, approximately ten percent brighter than Sol and ninety-eight percent of its mass, it puts Valbara well within the habitable zone. Valbara appears to have a slightly lower mass than Earth, but not enough to have any serious impact on any potential ground operations.”
  934.     “What kind of activity did the probe pick up?” Fielding asked.
  935.     “Lots of radio chatter, lots of interplanetary and orbital traffic. It appears that the Valbarans have established outposts on several moons of the outer gas giant, which is likely where they mine the helium-3 that they use in their reactors. Interestingly, the inner gas giant orbits at point zero zero seven AU from the star, and its year lasts only point zero two standard, that's a little over a week. It's incredibly hot and fast, I've never seen anything like it.”
  936.     “Defenses?” Fielding asked.
  937.     “A series of orbital defense platforms using high-powered laser batteries, and several more carriers like the one we encountered. Their reactors are kicking out immense heat. Not the most practical orbital defense system, but I wouldn't want to be in the aperture of those mirrors all the same. Personally, I don't think they'd be able to burn through the hull of a hive ship at any significant range, even if they concentrated their beams. I don't know how effective they'd be at holding off a Bug invasion. There's radioactivity too, likely nuclear weapons. Those might be more effective, but their use is obviously limited. Their strategy might have been to bombard the Bug fleet at range with their nuclear warheads, and then finish off the stragglers with laser fire.”
  938.     “Did we miss anything?” Fielding asked, directing his question to Maza.
  939.     “No, Captain,” she replied. “I must admit, I am a little...perturbed by your ability to spy on us.”
  940.     Her language skills were now so good that she was very nearly fluent, she might have been mistaken for a human if it wasn't for the pitch of her voice and the way that she seemed to hesitate before making a statement. It was remarkable to hear her speak so clearly after days of her parroting everything that she heard like...well, a parrot.
  941.     “It's strictly for our own security, I assure you,” he replied.
  942.     “So your evaluation is that our defenses would have been inadequate?” Coza asked, glancing at Campbell. “Ever since our defeat at Ker'gue'la, we have known that the Bugs would come for Val'ba'ra, and that it was only a matter of time. We have been preparing to face them for twenty rotations.”
  943.     “There are a lot of holes in your defenses,” Fielding replied. It wasn’t a criticism, but a simple statement of fact. “Your defense stations lack the ability to take out small vessels, which would allow the Bugs to board and disable them. They would also slip between the stations and make landfall, effectively bypassing the majority of your firepower.”
  944.     “We would use the fighters housed on our carriers to counter that threat,” Coza protested, her feathers fluttering with what might have been frustration or embarrassment. “Our commandos would hold the defense platforms against boarding parties.”
  945.     “Have you ever seen what a Betelgeusian warrior can do in close quarters?” Fielding asked.
  946.     “N-no,” she admitted, her feathers drooping.
  947.     “They can turn even a Krell into strips of meat. We've seen the Bugs launch large dropships, small landers, even individual drones contained within drop pods during a planetary invasion. Your fighters would not be able to track and destroy them all. I don't know what your people encountered at Kerguela, but there's no guarantee that this fleet will have anything in common with that hive. The Bugs mutate and genetically engineer themselves to suit whatever situation they find themselves in.”
  948.     “With all due respect, Captain, it is...difficult to accept that all of our preparations have been for nothing,” Maza said as Coza glared at the flickering hologram. She more than any of the other aliens seemed to be shaken by the revelation.
  949.     “Not for nothing,” Campbell added, “we can make use of them to supplement the fleet's firepower.”
  950.     “Then...you will not seek help from your homeworld?” Maza asked, surprised.
  951.     “We can't,” Fielding explained, “it would take about a year to return to Coalition space and then make it back here with reinforcements. The Bugs are already probing the system for weaknesses.”
  952.     “My apologies, it's just that your technology is so impressive to us. We assumed that you could communicate over great distances instantly, or perhaps travel faster than we can.”
  953.     “Don't worry,” Jaeger said, trying to reassure her. “The Rorke and its fleet were sent out here with the aim of tracking down and killing Bugs. We're equipped for this.”
  954.     Campbell grumbled under his breath, leaning across the table and staring at the hologram.
  955.     “Still, this fleet wasn't assembled to defend an inhabited planet,” the surly engineer said. “We have only one carrier, we don't have any battleships or cruisers, and our support fleet is fairly limited. We'll be stretched thin if we try to maintain control of Valbara's gravity well.”
  956.     “Then we rely on the Valbarans for support,” the Captain said, glancing in the flock's direction. “They have a dozen carriers, numerous defense platforms, and an entire civilization's worth of resources and manpower. With the right strategy, I'm confident that we can repel an invasion.”
  957.     Campbell didn't look as convinced as the Captain, shooting Jaeger a sideways glance.
  958.     “Quartermaster, the first thing that I want is an inventory of everything we have onboard,” the Captain ordered. “I want to know about every surplus XMR and every extra missile that we can spare, we're going to give the Valbarans the best chance that we can. I want information sharing to begin immediately, treaties and trade deals be damned. Transfer blueprints, plans, manufacturing techniques if necessary. I want them converting their current armaments and building new ones ASAP, and I want advisors on the ground to help them along.”
  959.     “Captain!” Doctor Evans exclaimed, “do you have any idea what kind of impact that might have on their society?”
  960.     “It might be a bit of a shock to their economy, but they can deal with the fallout if we survive this.”
  961.     “You're just...giving us all of your technology?” Xico asked in disbelief, her feathers flashing in shades of excited yellow.
  962.     “You would risk your lives for ours?” Coza added.
  963.     “I'm under orders from the Admiralty to scour this sector for Bugs and to prevent them from establishing a foothold on the borders of Coalition space from which they could launch further incursions,” Fielding replied without faltering. “I'm just carrying out my duties, Ma'am.”
  964.     The aliens closed ranks and began to chitter to one another in their native language. Apparently, they hadn't expected this kind of support. Campbell sighed loudly, running his fingers through his hair.
  965.     “Alright...well the defense platforms have reactors, and if they can power lasers, then they can power a railgun. That's going to help with range and penetration. Assuming that the Valbarans have the lifting capability to get them into orbit, we can build some twenty-millimeter turrets and hook them up to the power grid. Ammo is easy enough, it's just a matter of getting enough of it to where it will be most needed. We can equip the commandos stationed on the orbital platforms with surplus XMRs, and we can transmit the blueprints to build more. If they don't have the battery technology required to power them, then we can teach them to manufacture those too. If they can mine lithium, and they can make graphene, then they can manufacture batteries.”
  966.     “We can plug some of the holes in their defenses with our CWIS frigates,” Fielding said, pacing around the table as he scrutinized the hologram. “Have them protect the defense platforms and prevent the Bugs from slipping through the cracks as best they can. What about their carriers?”
  967.     “I don't think we can retrofit them,” Campbell said, bringing up a three-dimensional image of one of the Valbaran ships. The aliens again seemed disturbed by the ease at which the UNN was able to scan their technology and expose their military secrets. “One possibility would be to slave the targeting systems on those ships to the Rorke's flight computer. I think they would be more effective filling in for the CWIS frigates than as ships of the line. If we can direct those laser batteries, then we can use them to shoot down incoming torpedoes and fighters. The same goes for the lasers on the defense platforms.”
  968.     “Can the Rorke's computers handle that kind of load?” Fielding asked.
  969.     “Bandwidth might be an issue, but if we boost the capacity of the main comms array, then I think we'll have enough throughput. We'll need to write some new software to interface with the Valbaran computers, of course. We're going to be kicking out a stupid amount of radio chatter, which is going to light us up like a beacon. The Bugs will know what we're doing.”
  970.     “If I might interject, Sir,” Jaeger began. “How will we know when and where they'll attack from? If we concentrate our defenses on one side of the planet, and they exit superlight on the other, we'll lose time burning to them. Right now, they're sniffing about in the Oort cloud, but they could jump in from any direction. We don't have the numbers to cover the whole planet.”
  971.     “The defense platforms are spread out around the planet's equator in high orbit,” Campbell replied, “we'll have to relay the signal between them if we're going to hijack all of them at once.”
  972.     “We will station the mainstay of the fleet in orbit above the North pole,” Fielding said, “that way we can waste the shortest amount of time burning to their entry point. There's no reason for them to jump in at either of the poles, the Valbaran cities and manufacturing centers are mostly based around the equators, judging by their carbon emissions.”
  973.     “What do you require of us, Captain?” Maza asked. Perhaps the aliens were feeling left out.
  974.     “I need your team to contact your carrier, inform them of everything that you've learned during your time on the Rorke. We'll be sending them some large data packets soon, so make sure that they’re ready to receive and store them. I also need you to ask them for jump coordinates, I don't want to land the Rorke in the middle of a shipping lane.”
  975.     She nodded, another gesture that she had picked up from the humans.
  976.     “We must discuss this further, please excuse us.”
  977.     The aliens filed out of the room one by one, no doubt about to huddle again and come to a decision on what to do.
  978.     “You all have your orders,” Fielding said, clasping his hands behind his back as he glanced at each of the people sitting around the table in turn. “Let's not waste any time, the Bugs could start their attack tomorrow, or in a month. The faster you work, the more we can prepare, and the better odds we'll have of succeeding.”
  979.     There was a chorus of 'yes sir's', and then the personnel in attendance stood, making their way out into the corridor.
  980.     “Stay with the Valbarans,” Fielding said, stopping Jaeger as he made his way to the door. “It looks like fate has chosen you to be our ambassador, Lieutenant. You know these aliens better than anyone onboard. This is going to be jarring for them, I want to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Let me know if you anticipate any problems.”
  981.     “Yes, Sir.”
  982.     “Lord knows that if an advanced species showed up out of nowhere and offered to take control of our entire military, I'd be nervous.”
  983.     “Maza understands what we're trying to accomplish here,” Jaeger said, “I'm sure of that. The rest of her species though, is another matter.”
  984.     “You've done well so far, I know that none of this is in your job description. Keep it up.”
  985.  
  986. ***
  987.    
  988.     The Rorke left superlight just behind the Valbaran carrier, showering it in a cloud of colorful gas and particles, the rest of the support fleet dragged along in its wake. The vessels drifted for a moment as the miniature nebula spread and dissipated, the autopilots taking temporary control to prevent collisions as their crews endured the wracking energies of jump travel.
  989.     When they came to, before them was a gleaming jewel hanging in the blackness of space like some kind of beautiful bauble. There were shining oceans, their deep blue surfaces glittering under the light of the sun, swirling clouds cloaking continents of greenery. There was pink and purple too, odd colors for plants, staining the landscape like someone had spilled a giant cup of grape juice across the globe. The white hulls of the carriers and the defense platforms that were stationed in orbit shone brightly like beacons even at range, like motes of dust that ringed the equator. There were poles sheathed in white ice, but not much of it, they were small and reduced in comparison to those of Earth. It must be a warm planet.
  990.     The massive engines to the aft of the Rorke flared to life, belching blue flame as they propelled the behemoth towards Valbara. It was the largest thing in the sky, a whale swimming amidst a school of dolphins, the Valbaran carrier leading from the front like a tug guiding a tanker into port. The frigates that accompanied the giant vessel took up parade formation beside it, spread out in an impressive delta shape. The Captain's orders were to awe the aliens, both to inspire hope, and perhaps to dissuade any potential hostilities.
  991.     “The Valbaran vessels are communicating, Captain. There's a lot of radio chatter,” the comms officer announced. Fielding was standing in front of the large viewport at the front of the bridge, his arms crossed as he watched the planet slowly grow.
  992.     “Keep her steady, helmsman. Head for the North pole and park us in orbit. What's the status on the ground team?”
  993.     “Ready to launch,” the comms officer replied, touching a finger to her ear as she communicated with the hangar crew. “Shall I give them the go-ahead?”
  994.     “No,” Fielding replied, “let's wait until we're a little closer first.”
  995.     As the planet ballooned in the viewport, a trio of carriers began to burn towards them, squadrons of fighters detaching from their hulls and taking defensive positions.
  996.     “They're on an intercept course, Captain,” the weapons officer said as he looked up from his control bank. “Should we be worried?”
  997.     “No, keep our weapons cold. Remember, we're guests here. How would you feel if an unidentified ship, larger than any that you've ever seen, suddenly showed up in your skies? It's natural for them to be a little nervous.”
  998.     The ships neared until their spinning toruses were clearly visible, their long, segmented hulls glinting in the light of the system's star. A formation of fighters did a fairly close flyby, their colored panels flashing as they buzzed the bridge. They came back around, matching velocity, guiding the Rorke in as their engines pulsed.
  999.     “See?” Fielding said with a wave of his gloved hand, “here's our welcome party. Let's send the ground crew down to the surface.”
  1000.     “Yes, Captain.”
  1001.  
  1002. ***
  1003.    
  1004.     “Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers, your orders are to follow the Valbaran lander down to the surface and make landfall. Ensure the safety of the dropships, they're carrying the engineering and security teams.”
  1005.     “Roger that, control,” Jaeger said as he spooled his engine. “You get all that, Baker?”
  1006.     “Yep,” his wingman said, taxiing into position beside him as the heat shields rose out of the deck behind them. “I can't believe this, I never thought they'd actually let us take shore leave on Valbara. Imagine all the crazy shit we're about to see!”
  1007.     “It's not shore leave, we're working.”
  1008.     “Tropical climate, no orders once we get out of the cockpit besides lookin' around and takin' in the local culture, sure sounds like shore leave to me!”
  1009.     Jaeger watched as the camouflaged Valbaran lander lifted off the deck on its thrusters, inching towards the glimmering force field as it battled against the gravity in the enclosed hangar. It edged its way out into space, the wheeled landing gear stowing as it drifted, the momentum of the Rorke carrying it along.
  1010.     The indicator on Jaeger's HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch, and he gunned the engine. Acceleration pressed him into the padding of his seat as he shot out into the void, using his forward thrusters to slow himself as he came back around and located the Valbaran ship. Baker shot out to his rear, flame trailing from his engine as he banked to take up formation beside him.
  1011.     “You picking me up, Laserbird?” Jaeger asked as he tuned his radio to the frequency that the aliens used.
  1012.     “I read you, Jaeger...and do refrain from calling me 'Laserbird' over an open channel...”
  1013.     “Negative on that last request, Laserbird.”
  1014.     He watched as three UNN dropships left the hangar one by one, bulky craft with stubby wings that were painted the same ocean grey as the carrier, the cockpits placed high on their blunt noses. These were the main troop transports of the Coalition, able to hold a couple of dozen Marines or half as many alien auxiliaries, as armored as you could make something before piloting it became more akin to trying to make a breeze block fly. He had flown them during his training, and gliding during a simulated engine failure could be better described as controlled falling.
  1015.     Everyone took up formation with the Valbarans, the camouflaged vessel firing its engines and leading them towards the planet. It was already so close that it was more of a curved horizon than a sphere, his flight computer tagging nearby alien vessels and satellites on his way in. He could see the massive defense stations, nowhere near the scale of the Pinwheel, but large enough to be impressive. The Valbarans weren't half bad engineers. The stations were colored the same white as the carriers, their ring-shaped hulls dotted with stubby-barreled laser cannon batteries. There were two rings, an outer one that housed the weapons, and an inner one that rotated to simulate gravity. There was no central hub, the crew must work on the outer torus and then live on the inner, a compromise that was necessary for a species that lacked artificial gravity technology.
  1016.     There were satellites everywhere, probably for global communications, and the carriers were spaced out all over the place. He was picking up a dozen in radar range alone.
  1017.     “Match my trajectory,” Maza said, “we'll be landing at the spaceport in Yilgarn city.”
  1018.     He watched as her engines went cold, the lander rocking as it entered the atmosphere. Heat built up until flames licked across the canopy, leaving black smears where they came into contact with the heat tiles. Meanwhile, the two Beewolfs cut through the atmosphere like knives through butter, using their thrusters to brake as they glided effortlessly. The Valbaran ship looked so strained, like it was about to shake apart, the air currents buffeting it as it left a smoking trail through the cloud layer.
  1019.     They soon emerged into open air, and Jaeger looked down past his feet to take in the landscape as it rushed past below them, zooming in with his visor to magnify the image from the camera feeds. As they dropped in altitude, he could make out what looked like lush forests, the trees resembling conifers and ferns. Large lakes and snaking rivers were everywhere, shining like bands of silver as they reflected the sunlight. There was purple too, patches of pink and violet that seemed to stain the landscape.
  1020.     The fighters maintained their formation with the dropships as they flew in lazy circles, aerobraking to shed velocity, the flames of reentry fading. It seemed that the Valbarans were no longer making use of their main engines at all, they were simply gliding, like a spaceplane from humanity's distant past. It was actually rather difficult to match speed with them, they were making the unwieldy UNN dropships look graceful and spry in comparison.
  1021.     As they shot over the wilderness, Jaeger couldn't help but feel confused.
  1022.     “Hey Maza,” he said, switching to the open channel. “I thought you said that we were headed to a city?”
  1023.     “We are,” she replied.
  1024.     “Alright...but I'm not seeing any buildings yet. There's no sprawl, no industry, I feel like we should have seen something by now.”
  1025.     “Just wait,” she replied, “you'll understand soon enough.”
  1026.     His scope picked up a white glint in the distance, his sensors detecting the heat signatures of fusion reactors, even above the balmy thirty degrees centigrade of the local atmosphere. He zoomed in, but the heat haze made it hard to see much at such a great distance. As they neared it, the land below still devoid of anything remotely artificial, the city came into full view.
  1027.     Amidst the rolling plains and pockets of dense forest, there was a white ring. It was a wall, it must have been about two hundred feet high, built from the same material as their orbital platforms it seemed. It was maybe twenty miles from side to side, with an area of perhaps a thousand square miles, and contained within it was Yilgarn.
  1028.     Vast urban sprawl, ugly industrial centers, and towering financial districts characterized most human cities. They were overpopulated, with massive skyscrapers a mile tall that broke up the horizon, tens or even hundreds of millions of people packed as densely as they could manage over thousands of square miles. He had seen the domed cities of Mars, which were similarly overcrowded, and this construct was even larger than their glass bubbles.
  1029.     The first thing that stood out to him about the walled city was the greenery. Within its boundaries, the flora continued to flourish, there were no concrete parking lots or asphalt roads to break it up. Rolling hills and carefully tended forests made it almost indistinguishable from what lay beyond its borders. Everything was laid out in concentric rings. The outermost of these bands was made up mostly of grassland, criss-crossed by pathways that threaded between patches of forest and purple plants, dotted with small streams and lakes. There were no buildings there of any kind, at least none that were visible. Was it some kind of nature park or botanical garden?
  1030.     The next band was occupied by twelve massive towers spaced out at regular intervals around the circle, at least twelve hundred feet tall. The giant cylinders were made from the same snow-white material, rows of glass windows glittering as the sun bathed them in its glow. Each one was subtly different from the last, curved buttresses and artistically designed facades making each one an architectural marvel. Atop their domed roofs were laser batteries, clearly designed to be the air defense platforms for the city. At the base of the towers there were buttresses that were spread out in a regular pattern to reinforce them, like the outriggers of a crane, and surrounding them were more landscaped gardens and forests.
  1031.     Deeper into the circle was a wide band that was populated by what looked like white pinheads, spaced out in a very random and organic manner, as though they had been scattered there by the hand of some clumsy giant. Pathways led between them, and they were surrounded by trees and lakes. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was not random at all, but very thoughtfully arranged so that the hills and trees masked each of the small buildings from the view of its neighbors. These were dwellings, must be, the Valbaran equivalent of a suburb.
  1032.     Further in still was another thin band of parkland, and then the nature finally gave way to something more recognizable. Rows of what looked like tower blocks occupied the next circle, shorter than the defense towers, but probably still six hundred feet high. Beyond them were skyscrapers, not as tall as those of Earth, but still imposing. They were built from white and silver metal, lined with large windows. What stood out to him most were the terraces, large balconies that extended from the sides of the high-rises at seemingly random intervals, blanketed with green and purple foliage like rooftop gardens. Each skyscraper was unique in its design, with odd and exciting architectural features, their curving and organic shapes making them feel as though they were a natural part of the surrounding landscape. It was as if someone had taken all of the most outlandish and unusual structures from London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, and then had crammed them all into one city center.
  1033.     “Ritzy...” Baker muttered over the radio.
  1034.     “Follow me down to the runway,” Maza said, banking her lander in the direction of the skyscrapers. The tips of her stubby wings left contrails in the air behind her, what looked like air brakes opening along the hull. As they rounded the cluster of towering structures, a long landing strip came into view, leading to what must be the spaceport. It was small by UNN standards, there was nowhere that the Rorke could have made landfall, or even one of the frigates. Could the Valbaran carriers not land on a planet? The more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed, they were shaped all wrong for atmospheric flight.
  1035.     He watched as Maza glided down to the ground, deploying her wheels and touching down, bouncing for a few feet as the lander braked. It finally came to a stop, then it began to taxi towards a series of hangars that were off to the right.
  1036.     “Let's make a vertical landing on the runway,” Jaeger suggested, angling the nose of his Beewolf down. He thought he'd give the Valbarans something to gawk at, coming in hot and hitting his forward thrusters, slowing abruptly and hovering above the tarmac. He could see that there were bystanders near the hangars, zooming in on them to see aliens standing with their jaws agape and their feathers puffed up, shielding their eyes from the sun with their hands as they watched him.
  1037.     Baker came in doubly hot, angling his nose up towards the sky as he used the thrusters on his belly to brake, pivoting towards the hangars as he kicked up a cloud of dust. The dropships came down after them, lowering themselves a little more gently, touching their gear down on the ground. Their grey hulls shone, their canopies reflecting the sun.
  1038.     “Where do you want us, Maza?” Jaeger asked over the comms.
  1039.     “Taxi into the nearest hangar,” she replied, her voice hissing with static. “And Jaeger, welcome to Val'ba'ra.”
  1040.  
  1041. CHAPTER 8: YILGARN
  1042.    
  1043.     Jaeger took off his helmet and set it on his seat as his canopy slowly rose, then he hopped out of his cockpit, his boots hitting the ground with a thud. Immediately, the heat hit him like a wall. It was hot, humid, like a summer's day in a swamp. His flight suit already felt stifling, and so he shed it, stripping down to the Navy uniform that he wore beneath it and stowing it alongside the helmet.
  1044.     Baker was exiting his Beewolf behind him, and he heard the hydraulic hiss of a landing ramp opening, looking to his right to see that the dropships were unloading their cargo. Humans in yellow uniforms that identified them as engineers jogged down the ramps, carrying crates and boxes. They were followed by personnel dressed in Navy blue, probably the advisors that Fielding had talked about. A pair of Krell lumbered down one of the ramps wearing armored ponchos in Marine black, large automatic XMRs hanging from their chests on slings, and truly massive riot shields slung across their scaly backs. They were set up for security detail, clearly. There were no Borealan guards, which in his opinion, was a wise choice. It wasn't worth the risk of an incident when the ever gentle and friendly Krell could do the same job. That said, the sixteen-foot-long, eight-foot-tall reptiles were going to have some serious problems navigating a city that was built for a species that was only five feet at the most.
  1045.     There were Valbarans nearby, soldiers, they looked like. They were wearing the same full-faced helmets that Maza and her friends had worn on the Rorke, but their camouflaged jumpsuits were armored, and they were wearing plate carriers and pads to protect their vitals. He noted that their colors were green and purple, rather than the blue and grey that Maza wore, more suited for ground combat in their strangely colored forests no doubt. Each one was holding a rifle with a blocky, plastic housing and what looked like a large flashlight for a barrel, with a long-range scope mounted on top. Those were probably portable laser weapons. They were lined up in rows, disciplined, as much a firing line as a welcoming committee. Jaeger couldn't blame them for being cautious.
  1046.     “So, what do you think?” he heard. Maza made her way over from her parked ship, her helmet clasped under her arm and her four companions following behind her. She reached up to pat him on the arm, turning to face the line of soldiers, Baker appearing at his left with a wide grin on his face.
  1047.     “It's hot,” Jaeger replied.
  1048.     She laughed, then composed herself, standing to attention as a Valbaran parted the line of soldiers. This one wasn't wearing a jumpsuit, but rather a remarkably normal pair of what almost resembled bike shorts that reached its knees, along with a billowy shirt like a tunic. Everything was made from light, flowing material in muted colors, decorated with geometric patterns. His eyes roamed down to its forearms, and just as he had suspected, he could see two more feather sheaths like those on their heads. They were wound around its arms like vines. Its feet were bare, only the uniformed Valbarans with blue camo were wearing boots that covered their lower legs, a component of their pressure suits. The ones wearing green and purple were also barefoot, exposing a pair of wicked talons that tipped their two toes. He didn't fancy taking a kick from one of those.
  1049.     The alien stopped before them, clasping its hands together and extending its feathers like fans, sprouting from its head and forearms in a flash of red plumes.
  1050.     “Welcome to Yilgarn, Earth'nay.”
  1051.     “You speak English?” Jaeger asked, surprised.
  1052.     “Yes, Maza'xol'natuih and her flock have compiled an extensive database on your language, which we have been studying in preparation for your arrival. My name is Netza'cui'atl, I am Ensi of this city along with my fellow council members, what you might call a mayor or a councilman.”
  1053.     Jaeger saluted, and after a moment, Baker did the same. It was the closest equivalent to the respectful feather displays of the aliens that they had. The other UNN personnel were arriving now, and Jaeger was surprised to see Campbell among them. They shared a glance, the engineer looked even more surly than usual.
  1054.     “I didn't expect to see you down here,” Jaeger said.
  1055.     “Yeah, well, someone has to supervise this mess. We have to overhaul the technology of an entire civilization, and we might only have days or weeks to do it. Unfortunately, I'm the most qualified.”
  1056.     “I'm sure you'll do a sterling job,” Baker whispered, Campbell scowling at him.
  1057.     “Miss...Madame...Netza'cui...” Campbell stammered, struggling with her odd name.
  1058.     “You may call me Ensi,” Netza'cui'atl said with an orange flurry from her feathery headdress, “it is customary.”
  1059.     “Er...very well...Ensi,” Campbell continued. “My name is Chief Engineer Campbell, Captain Fielding of the Rorke has sent me to oversee the preparations and refits.”
  1060.     “Of course, welcome, Chief Engineer. There is a delegation of Val'ba'ra'nay industrialists and scientists here to meet with you, they've traveled here from all over the planet. They're very excited by the blueprints that you have shared with us, and they're eager to learn Earth'nay manufacturing techniques. Allow us to carry your equipment,” she said as she looked over at the yellow-clad men, already sitting on their crates beside the dropships and wiping their brows in the sweltering heat.
  1061.     “I assure you Ensi, that won't be necessary,” Campbell said as he fiddled with the topmost button on his tight collar. A group of maybe two dozen Valbarans wearing forest camo jumpsuits flooded past him, the engineers hopping off their boxes as the little aliens lifted them effortlessly. There were four of them to a crate, loads that four or five of the engineers had struggled to carry between them. They marched them out of the hangar and out of view, the engineering team hurrying along after them as they shared confused glances.
  1062.     “I'll just...follow the rest of my team...”
  1063.     He jogged off towards the open doors of the hangar, one of the Krell breaking ranks to follow after him. It seemed as if both the engineers and the military advisors had been assigned a Krell guard. Next, a man wearing a blue UNN uniform stepped forward, and Jaeger could see that the insignia on his breast identified him as a Colonel. He was more fastidious than Campbell, standing straight with his hands clasped firmly behind his back.
  1064.     “I'm Colonel Roberts of the UNN Marine corps, Ensi. I have been tasked with instructing your soldiers in the use of our weapons and briefing them on our battlefield tactics. My job is to ensure that we can work together effectively in a combat situation.”
  1065.     “Welcome, Colonel Roberts,” she replied with another red flush of her feathers. Roberts was attentive, he had seen how Jaeger and Baker had responded to the gesture, saluting her in turn. She raised one of her arms, the humans watching as the tentacle-like sheath extended, opening up to reveal the colorful feathers. She flashed a pattern, more complex than most, and one of the camouflaged soldiers stepped out of the line to make her way towards them.
  1066.     “This is Toch'tzin'teotl, she and her flock command the city guard in Yilgarn. She will be your liaison during your stay.”
  1067.     “Very good,” Roberts said, turning to gesture to his men. They slung rucksacks over their shoulders, carrying cases and crates out of the dropships, no doubt full of spare XMR parts and other such gear with which to train the Valbarans. Jaeger noted that they didn't give the aliens the opportunity to swoop in and take charge as they had with the engineers. A contingent of the Valbaran soldiers split off and followed after them, the commander at their head, and Roberts whistled to his Krell guard.
  1068.     “Come on, Reesh, let's double time it.”
  1069.     The giant reptile rumbled affirmatively, lumbering along after them. The Ensi watched him pass, her violet eyes wide with wonder.
  1070.     “That must be a Krell'nay,” she mused, “I had hoped that I might see one in person. It is magnificent.”
  1071.     “Don't worry, they're a lot friendlier than they look,” Baker said.
  1072.     “And you two must be the Beewolf pilots, Lieutenants Baker and Jaeger. You are the ones who fought with our squadron in the asteroid field. Maza'xol'natuih speaks most highly of you in her reports. I would thank you for your assistance on behalf of the Val'ba'ra'nay, but it would be insufficient to express the gratitude that we all feel. We have been preparing for the insect invasion for twenty rotations, ever since the tragedy on Ker'gue'la. Yet in the very moment that they prepare to launch their assault, the Earth'nay and their allies appear to save us. It is fate.”
  1073.     “From where we were standing, it felt more like your squadron was pulling 'us' out of the fire,” Jaeger replied. “We're happy to help, the Coalition exists to fight Betelgeusians.”
  1074.     “Can you explain this name to me, 'Betelgeusian'?” the Ensi asked. “What does it mean?”
  1075.     “We first encountered them in a star system known as Betelgeuse. It turned out that they weren't native to that system, but the name stuck. Our people up in orbit are already sending you all the data that we have on them, I'm sure.”
  1076.     “Your Captain tells me that you are to serve as ambassadors, is that correct? In such a case, I will leave you in the capable hands of Maza'xol'natuih and her flock, they will be tasked with assisting you during your stay. Please, walk beside me,” the Ensi said as she set off towards the hangar doors in her bobbing gait.
  1077.     “Hang on,” Baker said, “I'll fetch our gear.” He jogged off towards one of the dropships, mounting the landing ramp and vanishing from view for a few moments. When he emerged, he was carrying two loaded rucksacks. He tossed one to Jaeger as he neared, who caught it by the strap and slung it over his shoulders. They contained MREs, a change of clothes, and a few other items that they might need during their visit.
  1078.     Baker and Jaeger followed the Ensi as she set off, Maza staying by his side, her companions hurrying after them.
  1079.     “It shames me,” the Ensi began, “but I must soon depart to oversee preparations and to treat with your Captain. Being separated from one's flock is difficult, as I'm sure you can appreciate, one must rely solely on one's own judgment. But that is necessary for an Ensi, there is too much to oversee for just one Val'ba'ra'nay.”
  1080.     “Uh...sure,” Jaeger replied, “I can understand that.”
  1081.     In reality, he had no idea what she was talking about. She didn't seem to rule alone, she spoke of having a group of other Ensi who filled the same role as her. In fact, none of the people that she had introduced had been alone, were they all part of a flock? Was it so unusual for a Valbaran to act on their own initiative? That might explain why Maza always had to rush off to huddle with her friends before taking any action.
  1082.     As he emerged from beneath the shade of the hangar, Jaeger had to shield his eyes against the glare of the sun, the white architecture of the circular city and the innumerable windows shining like beacons. From where he was standing, he could see the cluster of skyscrapers in the city center and the tips of the tower blocks, but everything else was obscured by the trees and foliage. If he didn't know better, he might have assumed that the spaceport was located in the middle of the countryside.
  1083.     There was a gentle breeze that helped to stave off some of the heat and humidity, rustling the leaves of what looked like palm and conifer trees. Most had green leaves, but some were stained purple, perhaps it was another kind of photosynthetic plant that had evolved in parallel with the more familiar variety? The sky above him was a deep blue, with a few wisps of white cloud visible, the system's star a fiery ball of pale light that made him wish that he had brought a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen with him.
  1084.     He could make out more Valbaran vessels parked in the hangars, mostly more landers, likely the primary method that the aliens used to ferry personnel and supplies into orbit. They must use some kind of heavy lifters too, chemical rockets maybe, because there was no way that they could have transported the necessary materials to build those defense platforms using such small ships.
  1085.     “I'm curious as to what you make of our city,” the Ensi said, leading them along a winding path that snaked between the trees at the edge of the runway.
  1086.     “It's very impressive,” Jaeger replied, “it seems to be very carefully planned out.”
  1087.     “Should it not be?” Maza asked, confused.
  1088.     “Please, Maza'xol'natuih,” the Ensi chided. “Our guests have alien customs, we must try to be understanding.”
  1089.     “Our cities are a lot bigger and a lot messier,” he explained. “They're usually built and expanded as needed, rather than planned out in advance. Some are hundreds of years old and have ended up covering thousands of square miles.”
  1090.     “What are miles?” the Ensi whispered to Maza.
  1091.     “A unit used to measure distance,” she replied.
  1092.     “Ah, I see. They must be very large, then. Perhaps you will indulge me with some pictures or video recordings when we have the time? I should like very much to see them for myself.”
  1093.     “Of course,” Jaeger said with a nod.
  1094.     “On Val'ba'ra, every one of our cities is an engineering project in itself. It is self-sufficient and self-contained, designed for maximum efficiency, coupled with minimal impact on the local ecosystem. How you are able to accomplish that while continuing to expand is beyond the understanding of even our most accomplished scientific flocks, you must share this technology with us.”
  1095.     “Earth'nay cities must be amazing,” Xico added, hurrying along with her bobbing gait to join in on the conversation. “Imagine a city that spans such a great distance, imagine the complexity! The transit systems, the waste disposal, the environmental hurdles that they must have overcome. There is so much knowledge that we might one day apply to Val'ba'ra.”
  1096.     “Haha, yeah...” Baker chuckled half-heartedly, shooting Jaeger a concerned expression. These aliens seemed to take environmentalism for granted, now probably wasn't the best time to fill them in on the reality of city living back on Earth. It might dispel the positive image that the Valbarans seemed to have of the Coalition.
  1097.     “Yilgarn has extensive parks and botanical gardens,” the Ensi continued, “all designed to make the inhabitants feel as if they're not in an urban area at all, but rather in the midst of a natural environment. When we do build large structures, we try to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Did you see the city center on your way in?”
  1098.     “We did,” Jaeger said, “you have skilled architects. I've visited a few large cities on Earth, and those buildings are the equal of anything that I saw back home.”
  1099.     “You flatter me, Earth'nay,” she trilled as the feathers on her head and forearms fluttered in vibrant shades of yellow and orange. Xico too was pleased by that statement, sharing a flurry of colored feathers with Maza. The dark-scaled alien took more interest in the technological side of things than her companions.
  1100.     “I wanted to ask,” Jaeger began as they made their way through a stretch of forest. The trunks of the trees were straight and fat, reminding him of a baobab tree, the vaguely blue-colored leaves spread out in fan shapes like a palm or a fern. There were purple flowers poking up through the green grass, small insects that resembled winged ants flying between them. Everything was tightly packed, such that he could no longer see the hangars of the spaceport, which couldn't have been more than a two minute walk away by now. “What's the function of the giant wall? I get that the laser batteries are for defensive purposes, but if the Bugs should attack the city, they would land troops behind the walls using drop pods or troop carriers. Is it to defend against ground invasion from other cities?”
  1101.     “Goodness no,” the Ensi replied, flashing her feathers in what might be shock or perhaps amusement. “The wall is for defensive purposes, yes, but only against hostile fauna.”
  1102.     “Hostile fauna!?” Baker exclaimed, “what kinda hostile fauna would need a two hundred foot wall to keep it out?”
  1103.     “Earth has lions,” Maza replied with an excited flurry of feathers, “Val'ba'ra has Teth'rak.”
  1104.     “Maza'xol'natuih and her flock will be happy to give you a full tour, I'm sure,” the Ensi said as the group emerged from beneath the forest canopy. Before them was a flight of stairs that led up to some kind of awning that almost looked like a bus stop, designed in the usual curving and organic style that he was becoming accustomed to seeing. It was connected to a pole that led off into the distance, suspended in the air on sparse supports. At first, Jaeger assumed that it might be some kind of water pipeline, but then he saw something zipping towards them along the pole. It was a train car, the same white color as everything else in the city, its bullet-shaped chassis lined with windows. It was hovering just off the track, a mag-lev train.
  1105.     It slowly decelerated and came to a stop inside the little station, as quiet as a whisper, and then the Ensi stepped onto the stairs. It was actually an escalator, Jaeger watching as it carried her up towards the platform. The other Valbarans followed after her, so Jaeger and Baker did the same, the steps a little small for their large human feet. When they arrived at the top, they had to duck under the awning. There was about a foot of clearance for the average Valbaran, but Jaeger was tall enough that he could feel his hair brushing against it.
  1106.     “I must depart now,” the Ensi said, giving them another salute with a flash of red. “We will meet again soon, I am sure. I am sorry to have made you walk so far, but the spaceport is some distance from the nearest mag track. Maza'xol'natuih has been tasked with ensuring your comfort and seeing to your needs during your stay, please address any concerns or questions that you might have to her and her flock.”
  1107.     He wasn't sure what she meant by that, the spaceport couldn't have been more than a five-minute walk away, but he thanked her as she stepped through an automatic door and took a seat in the train car. The chairs here were much like those that he had seen inside the Valbaran lander, like a director's chair with no back support, designed to let their thick tails hang over the rear. Curiously, there were no other occupants inside. The train sped off towards the city, soon becoming little more than a white glint seen through the ever-present heat haze.
  1108.     Baker adjusted the straps of his rucksack, clearly already suffering from the oppressive atmosphere.
  1109.     “So what now?” he asked, glancing down at the gaggle of aliens.
  1110.     “What were the orders that your Captain Fielding gave you?” Maza asked.
  1111.     “Pretty vague,” Jaeger said with a shrug. “I'm fairly sure that the Captain just wants us to explore the city and interact with the locals, then relay what we learn to him. We've already developed a rapport with you and your friends, and unlike the engineers or the Marines, we don't have a lot to do until the shooting starts. I guess the Captain wants us to scout out your civilization a little while we have the time.”
  1112.     “Like I said, it's shore leave,” Baker added.
  1113.     “It's not shore leave,” Jaeger replied with a roll of his eyes, “we're supposed to be making an effort to observe and understand. We can't just goof off. If we go back to the Rorke without anything useful or insightful to report, then we'll be on Fielding's shit list.”
  1114.     “I think I understand,” Maza said, turning to her group of four friends and huddling up with them. They chirped and hissed in their own language, glancing conspiratorially at the two humans every now and then, fluttering their feathers and flashing the LCD panels on their forearms. After what felt to Jaeger like an excessively long time, they broke ranks, Xico walking up to a touch panel that was mounted on the guard rail by the track and typing in a command.
  1115.     “So...where are we going?” Baker asked.
  1116.     Maza puffed up her feathers in the shades of yellow and orange that Jaeger was beginning to associate with excitement.
  1117.     “We will give you a tour of the city. We should begin at the outermost ring and move inwards. Our first stop will be the wall. You will be staying at our dwelling rather than at a hotel closer to the city center, we have all of the accommodations that you might need. All the better to immerse yourselves in our culture and learn about our customs, no? You can observe how the average Val'ba'ra'nay lives.”
  1118.     “We can't wait to show you our city!” Xico added, looking up from the console and giving him a flurry of yellow.
  1119.     “Uh...alright,” Jaeger said. He began to roll up the sleeves of his uniform, trying to cool himself down a little. These damned things were so unsuited to the tropical environment. “What do you mean by 'our' dwelling?”
  1120.     “Me and my flock, of course,” Maza replied matter-of-factly.
  1121.     “You all live together?”
  1122.     “Naturally,” she said, cocking her head as she looked up at him. “This cannot be unusual, you Earth'nay all live together on your carrier, your friends sleep in close proximity to you. I have seen your quarters.”
  1123.     “Life on a carrier isn't a good example of a normal living situation for a human,” he said, the alien fluttering her feathers in confusion. “We're crammed together like sardines because we have to be. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't choose to live in such close proximity to each other. Most people live either alone or with their romantic partner. Sometimes people become roommates because they want to reduce living costs, but it's rare to find more than two or three people living together unless they're a couple with a lot of kids.”
  1124.     “Then...Baker and Scratcher are not your flock?”
  1125.     “No. They're just my friends, my colleagues.”
  1126.     “Yet you fly together?”
  1127.     “Like I said, we're colleagues,” he explained. “That's our job.”
  1128.     “Earth'nay are usually solitary creatures, then? I am shocked by this.”
  1129.     “No, no. It's not that clear cut,” he said, growing frustrated. “Why don't you tell me what a 'flock' is first? Humans might not have any equivalent to compare it to. The Ensi kept mentioning it, and I don't know what it means.”
  1130.     “Flock is an Earth'nay word,” she assured him. “I checked.”
  1131.     “Yeah, but it might not have the meaning that you think it does. Don't assume that I have any prior knowledge, explain it like you would to...well, an alien.”
  1132.     She paused for a few moments, considering carefully before proceeding.
  1133.     “A flock is a group of people who live and work together, commonly six, but sometimes a few more or less. In our prehistory, the Val'ba'ra'nay were pack hunters, our ancestors would coordinate to bring down prey animals as a tightly knit group. When we discovered agriculture, that social bond continued on. Whether hunting an animal or tilling a field to plant crops, any task is made easier with more able bodies, and any decision is made wiser through consensus.”
  1134.     “I see,” Jaeger said, “so it's like a family unit? What about parents and children? Do they have a place in the flock?”
  1135.     “If a member of a flock produces offspring, then the flock will raise the child together until it comes of age, then it will leave to find its own flock.”
  1136.     “And how does one find a flock to join?” Jaeger asked.
  1137.     “Friends and schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors. Anybody of like mind. Nobody remains alone for long.”
  1138.     “So you guys do everythin' together?” Baker added, leaning on the nearby railing. “Live together, work together, raise children together? What happens if one of y'all is qualified for a job, but one of your buddies ain't?”
  1139.     “A flock must find a place in society that suits all of its members,” Ayau explained. “But more often than not, individuals of similar interests and skill sets will congregate, so problems like that are infrequent.”
  1140.     “Then everything is democratized, in a way?” Jaeger continued. “You all have to reach consensus before you do anything? Doesn't that slow you down?”
  1141.     “Perhaps,” Maza admitted with a flurry of feathers that seemed analogous to a shrug, “but our decisions are all the better for it. Does your Captain not consult with other knowledgeable members of his crew in the briefing room before making decisions?”
  1142.     “I suppose,” Jaeger conceded.
  1143.     There was a whoosh of air as another train car arrived in the station, sliding to a halt. Maza wasted no time, gripping him by the wrist with surprising strength and tugging him through the sliding door. This one too was empty, perhaps by design, as a couple of aliens might frighten or disturb the local commuters. It was almost bare inside, more white, featureless metal save for the chairs and windows. She took a seat, guiding him into the one beside her. It was a little small for him, but it was comfortable enough, kind of like an undersized folding chair that you might bring with you to the beach. Baker and the rest of Maza's flock sat down behind them, and then the train car began to move.
  1144.  
  1145. CHAPTER 9: TYRANT LIZARD
  1146.  
  1147.     Jaeger couldn't feel so much as a vibration through the floor, and there was no sound from the engine, he might have been standing still if it hadn't been for the trees that were rushing past the windows at alarming speed. He looked out over the band of greenery, the elevated mag-lev track giving him a better view of his surroundings. It looked much like it had from the air, trees and grass, rolling hills and white structures in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But from this angle, he could really appreciate the effort that had gone into the landscaping, the way that every tree and hill seemed precisely placed to obscure something else from view. In a way, it reminded him of the Pinwheel, an artificial structure that used clever trickery to present an illusion of nature.
  1148.     The city center was rushing towards them, the spires and glass towers even more artsy and exotic when seen from this distance, but Maza had said that they would be visiting the wall first. They seemed to be going in the wrong direction.
  1149.     Before he could bring it up with her, he noticed that another train car was rushing towards them along the track, his heartbeat quickening as he watched it approach. The two cars were going so fast that they would probably vaporize if they heat each other.
  1150.     “Uh...Maza? There's another car on the same track as ours. Maza? Maza!”
  1151.     Moments before the two collided, the cars shifted, sliding to either side of the cylindrical track as if they were falling off it. The interior stayed level, like it was gyroscopically stabilized, Jaeger barely feeling the motion as he watched the other car zip past. It then returned to its original position, the aliens fluttering their feathers and laughing at his reaction.
  1152.     “I guess that's one way to get two cars on the same track,” he mumbled, composing himself. He glanced over his shoulder at Baker, who seemed to have enjoyed the scare, a wide grin on his face.
  1153.     They reached a Y-bend in the track, and the car shot off to the right, the mag-lev system was apparently much more versatile than he was accustomed to. Now they were heading in the direction of the circular wall, he could see it slowly rising in the distance. He craned his neck to peer out of the windows as they passed over a residential district, watching the dome-shaped dwellings fly past below. Each one was surrounded by gardens, and they were all near a water source, you'd have to pay out of the nose to live somewhere like that on Earth. Buying a square foot of land was probably equal to the cost of paving it with an inch of gold plating.
  1154.     Behind him, Baker was making more conversation with his neighbors, more interested in their social system than in the scenery it seemed.
  1155.     “So is Maza your leader?”
  1156.     “No,” the Valbaran who was seated next to him replied, Jaeger recognizing her as Ayau. The more time he spent with the flock, the more he was able to differentiate between the individuals, they all had subtle features that set them apart. “We are all of equal standing within the flock.”
  1157.     “Then how do you decide who to follow?”
  1158.     “If someone takes the initiative and nobody objects, then we follow them. The flock has no leader.”
  1159.     “And if two of you disagree?”
  1160.     “Then we reach a consensus.”
  1161.     The wall grew larger and larger, it was built like a dam, with sloped faces that were thinner on top. There were instruments and windows lining it, miscellaneous machinery that could have been anything from comms gear to weather monitoring equipment, and he could see spots near the bottom where water drained from pipes to fill the rivers and lakes within the city. There were buildings on top of it spaced at intervals, too small to house laser batteries. They might be simple guard towers, he would find out soon enough.
  1162.     The track branched off again, this one leading towards the top of the wall at an incline, and the train car finally came to a stop at another awning that protected the passengers from the elements. Once they had all disembarked, the car looped back around, vanishing from view as it slid back down the track.
  1163.     Jaeger stepped out from beneath the awning, making his way towards the flimsy guard rail that stood between him and the two hundred foot drop on the far side of the wall. Immediately gusts of wind very nearly knocked him off balance, and he looked out over a wild wilderness that extended to the horizon, forests and rivers breaking up the grassy plains. It was a little cooler up here, more pleasant, though still stiflingly hot. Maza sidled up beside him and leaned on the guard rail, looking down the sheer face of the titanic structure as her head-tentacles blew gently in the breeze.
  1164.     Behind him, he could see the ever-present skyscrapers of the city center, shining brightly in the sunlight. You could probably see them from a hundred miles away on a clear day, they were almost like lighthouses.
  1165.     “Are you afraid?” she asked. “Val'ba'ra'nay like high places, but I don't know about Earth'nay.”
  1166.     “I'm a pilot, I can handle heights. So this is what most of your planet looks like?”
  1167.     “The majority, at least where we find it most comfortable. There is ice at the poles, and we have some jungles, oceans, and mountains too. We let nature reign outside of our walls. The rivers find their own path, the lakes pool where they may, the forests and plants grow where they choose. We live in our little pockets of order, trying to minimize our impact on the world.”
  1168.     He looked to his left and right, taking in the magnificence of the wall. It was huge, with a wide walkway that went all the way along the top, interrupted at intervals by the small structures that he had spotted on the way up. It looked a lot like the great wall of China, if you painted it white and made it perfectly circular, of course. It wasn't made from bricks or stone, none that he could see at least, it was constructed from the omnipresent metal paneling that the Valbarans seemed to favor. One would have expected it to heat up to unbearable levels in the direct glare of the sun, but it was cool to the touch.
  1169.     “Those towers are lookout posts,” she explained, following his gaze. “They also monitor weather, migration patterns, air pollution and things like that.”
  1170.     “Migration patterns?” Jaeger asked. “Migration patterns of what?”
  1171.     “The animals that we hunt, and the predators that we need to watch out for. Come, with any luck, we might be able to see some.”
  1172.     The prospect seemed to excite Baker more than it did Jaeger, who immediately set off towards the nearest lookout post.
  1173.     “Wait,” one of the Valbarans said, her feathers flaring with confusion. “Surely you aren't going to walk all that way?”
  1174.     The two humans shared a glance. What were they talking about? The nearest structure was only a half mile away the most. The alien gestured to what initially looked like a bicycle rack which was placed beside the little train station, stocked with small, two-wheeled scooters with a long handle. She took one by the handlebars and wheeled it out into the center of the walkway, stepping onto the footrest, the two wheels placed to the left and right of it. He heard the whir of an electric motor, and then she leaned the handle forwards, the device setting off up the path at jogging speed.
  1175.     Jaeger had to stifle a laugh. It was a ridiculous looking mode of transportation, doubly so with the strange alien standing atop it.
  1176.     “Just lean in the direction you want it to go,” she explained, circling back around. “It's easy.”
  1177.     “When in Rome,” Baker said with a shrug, joining the Valbarans as they picked out their own wheeled platforms. Jaeger rolled his eyes and chose one for himself, standing precariously on the polymer footrest. It was textured for better grip, but it was too small for a human. He had to hunch over unnaturally to reach the handle, and the toes of his boots spilled over the front.
  1178.     His first attempt sent the device toppling over, throwing him to the ground, much to the amusement of the Valbarans. His second try went a little better, and he began to get the hang of the alien vehicle. Baker did a lap around him, already an expert it seemed.
  1179.     “What, you can fly a Beewolf, but you can't ride a scooter? Come on Bullseye.”
  1180.     Grumbling under his breath, Jaeger set off after his companions, wobbling occasionally as he struggled to keep the thing under control. He soon felt the wind on his face, his sweat helping to cool him as he drove alongside the flock, the supports of the handrail zipping past beside him. He wanted to take in some more of the vistas, but he was scared to take his attention off the pathway, these scooters were death traps. They were going fairly slow, maybe ten miles per hour at the most, but it could still land him a scuffed knee if he fell.
  1181.     “So, I noticed that you don't like to walk very far,” he said as he drove up beside Maza and tried to match pace with her. “What's the deal with that?”
  1182.     “Do we seem to lack stamina from your perspective?” she asked.
  1183.     “Yeah. I noticed that you couldn't walk far on the Rorke before you had to take a break to rest, and when we left the spaceport, your Ensi apologized for making us walk so far. Now we're riding scooters when we could be walking.”
  1184.     “It's hard to say, I don't really have a frame of reference.”
  1185.     “I can run a mile in about eight minutes, for example.”
  1186.     She paused, doing some math in her head, then her eyes widened.
  1187.     “An 'entire' mile?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “A Val'ba'ra'nay can run at full sprint for maybe ten or fifteen seconds. You must have incredible endurance to be able to run for eight minutes without tiring.”
  1188.     “Oh, we can run for longer than that if we pace ourselves,” he said. “Twenty-five miles is about the standard distance for a marathon. Back in P.T, we used to run twelve miles in three hours with seventy pounds of gear on our backs.”
  1189.     “That's...monstrous,” she marveled as she looked him up and down, Jaeger doing his best not to fall off his scooter and ruin his new image.
  1190.     “Back in our prehistory, we used to chase down animals during a hunt,” he added. “We ran them down until they collapsed from exhaustion.”
  1191.     “Can you do it now?” Maza asked, looking at him with bright eyes and a yellow flurry from her headdress.
  1192.     “Er...I suppose so.”
  1193.     “Yeah, Jaeger,” Baker laughed from somewhere behind him. “Unless livin' on the Rorke has made you soft?”
  1194.     “I'm not 'that' out of practice,” Jaeger complained. He slowed his scooter, swerving for a moment as he tried to keep his balance, then stepped off it. Maza stopped to watch him eagerly, the other aliens doing the same, Baker grinning mischievously. He lifted the vehicle and rested it across his shoulders, itself probably a good fifty or sixty pounds, cursing himself for running his mouth. Now he'd have to jog the quarter mile that remained, and the heat wouldn't be doing him any favors.
  1195.     He began to jog at a brisk pace, his boots hammering on the metal beneath him as he passed by Maza. She leaned forward on her scooter, driving alongside him as she watched him break out into a run. He covered the ground quickly, arriving at the foot of the building in a couple of minutes. He set the scooter that he had been carrying on the ground, doubling over to catch his breath and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
  1196.     “Amazing!” Maza said, bringing her vehicle to a stop beside him. “You ran all that way!”
  1197.     Coza seemed even more impressed, standing beside her scooter with her hands on her hips as she watched him silently. She had seemed the most perturbed back on the Rorke when she had found out that their planetary defenses were inadequate, and now she was seeing another human attribute that surpassed their own. As exciting as first contact with an alien species was, it was also turning their world upside-down, challenging their long-held beliefs. Jaeger would have to keep in mind that these aliens were individuals, that not all of them would react the same way.
  1198.     “It can't be that surprising,” he said, panting. “Surely you have animals on Valbara that can run long distance?”
  1199.     “Not as far as you claim. Although I see now that there's a tradeoff, humans aren't very fast in short bursts.”
  1200.     “And Valbarans are?” he asked. She gave him a wry look, and then turned, setting off down the path until she was maybe five hundred feet away from him. He watched curiously as she stepped off the scooter, then she began to remove her gloves. She popped the seals on the wrists and then placed them beside the scooter, rolling up her sleeves until the two feather sheaths on her forearms were exposed. She flexed them, extending the multicolor plumes as she began to hop on the spot, shaking her limbs and rolling her neck like a runner preparing for a hundred-yard dash.
  1201.     She then crouched low, her long, straight tail extended rigidly behind her, and her arms held out like she was about to take off. Jaeger watched her muscles bulge beneath her camouflaged suit, her proportionally massive thighs seeming to swell as she used them to propel herself forward, her head low and streamlined. There was a short windup, and then she was at full tilt, her little feet a blur as she raced towards him. The feathers on her arms extended, she was using them like rudders to stabilize herself, reaching speeds that he wouldn't have thought possible. She covered the distance in about ten seconds, skidding to a halt beside him and using her plumes like air brakes, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she took in deep breaths.
  1202.     “You...couldn't...outrun me,” she panted, locking her legs as she rested. She really did seem exhausted by the short sprint, but she was right, she ran like a cheetah.
  1203.     “How fast can you go?” he asked, not even attempting to hide how impressed he was.
  1204.     “Maybe...thirty miles per hour...in your measurements.”
  1205.     “Jesus,” Baker exclaimed, “that's about fifty feet per second. She could outpace a racehorse.”
  1206.     “I'll go fetch your scooter,” Jaeger said, walking down the path and giving her a minute to recover. These little aliens had some tricks up their sleeves. Not only were they incredibly fast learners according to Evans, but they were far stronger than their size suggested, as well as being inhumanly fast. He picked up the scooter by the handle rather than risk riding it, collecting her gloves along with it and carrying them back to her. She unlocked her legs, thanking him as he passed her the gloves.
  1207.     “We should have a talk about your biology when we have time,” he said, watching Maza pull her sleeves back down and reconnect the gloves to their seals.
  1208.     “And yours,” she replied, still out of breath. “You Earth'nay have some hidden talents.”
  1209.     “Hang on,” Baker said, striding over to the nearest alien. He hooked his hands under Tacka's armpits and lifted her clear off the floor, holding the timid creature in the air as she flashed her feathers in surprise. He set her down again, leaving the poor creature looking rattled. She was the least conversational out of the flock, and Jaeger couldn't tell if she was having more trouble with the language than her companions, or if she was just that meek.
  1210.     “They're so light,” Baker mused, “they can't weigh more than about fifty or sixty pounds. You guys have hollow bones, right? Like birds?”
  1211.     “No, not hollow,” Maza replied. “We have a system of air sacks inside our bodies that are connected to our lungs and fill along with them. They run down our spine between our vertebrae. I'm assuming that you don't?”
  1212.     “No, we don't have anything like that,” Jaeger confirmed.
  1213.     “Strange, that must make you very heavy. I don't really know enough about biology to make any comparisons. My flock and I are pilots, not scientists. Our next stop should definitely be a hospital in the city. Maybe you can find out some useful information to take back to your Captain, and our people can learn about yours in turn.”
  1214.     “That's a good idea,” he replied with a nod.
  1215.     They continued on to the lookout post, stepping beneath the arches that held it above the pathway so that pedestrians could pass beneath it unhindered. Jaeger looked up at the featureless underside of the building, wondering how they were supposed to access it. Before he could ask, a circular panel descended. It was like someone had cut out a round section of the floor, propelled by some invisible means. It was probably magnetic again, like the trains.
  1216.     They stepped onto the platform, and it carried them all up into the tower. The plate returned to its place in the floor, seamless and with no visible break in the metal. They found themselves in a small control room, or at least small by human standards, the walls lined with blinking consoles and readouts that were all at Valbaran height.
  1217.     “There's nobody here?” Baker asked.
  1218.     “No,” Maza replied. “It's mostly automated, but they can be manned if they need to be. We're just here for the telescope.”
  1219.     She walked over to the wall that faced the exterior of the city, tapping at some touch panels with her fingers. There was what looked like a large television mounted on the wall, with rounded corners and a slightly convex screen, which flared to life. It showed a magnified view of the wilderness beyond the wall, and she manipulated the camera as she panned across the forests and fields.
  1220.     “There are usually some herd animals roaming around at this time of the year,” she said, toggling the magnification. “There's a Teth'rak who holds a territory of a few hundred square miles that extends to the wall on this side, she's always a crowd pleaser.”
  1221.     “What's a Teth'rak?” Baker asked.
  1222.     “You'll find out if I can just...there we go.”
  1223.     The camera was now centered on a small lake, beside which perhaps two dozen animals were standing around in a herd. Some were drinking, others pivoting their small heads on their long necks as they watched out for predators. They looked to Jaeger like ostriches, but a little more reptilian. They were covered in dull brown feathers that were tipped with white, their skin scaly and tan in color where it was visible on their long legs and faces. They had large, unblinking eyes that didn't convey much intelligence.
  1224.     “How far away are they?” he asked, stepping around one of her companions to get a closer look.
  1225.     “Oh, not too far. Maybe twenty miles.”
  1226.     She switched to thermal, the landscape changing color to shades of blue and black, while the warm bodies of the bird-like herd animals showed up as blobs of red and orange. She zoomed out, then began to pan again, searching for heat signatures. After a minute, she found what she was looking for, something large and hot that was lurking beneath the canopy of a nearby forest. Jaeger couldn't make out much besides the vague shape. It was larger than the bird creatures, with a bulky body and a long tail that stood out straight behind it.
  1227.     “There she is,” Maza whispered, “I knew she wouldn't be far off. The heat of the midday sun usually drives the Gue'tra flocks to the nearest rivers and streams, and that's when she likes to eat. Looks like she's hunting right now.”
  1228.     The two humans watched, transfixed as the orange blob slowly moved towards the herd of animals, staying under the cover of the trees. It was prowling like a lion. Jaeger could make out the vague shape of its head, the creature keeping it fixed on its prey. It must have binocular vision, that was common for predators.
  1229.     As it neared the edge of the woods, Maza switched back to the normal view, and the monitor displayed a patch of green and purple leaves. Ever so slowly, the nose of the beast inched out into the sunlight. The view was so clear that he could even make out the beautiful patterning on its thick, dull snout. It looked to him like a feathered dinosaur, its body covered in beautiful orange plumes, more like a coat of fur than individual feathers. Around its two beady eyes and along its nose it had two streaks of white framed with red, like a striking warning pattern. More of its long neck emerged, then its shoulders, all covered with the same rust-colored feathers. Along its spine were more developed plumes, like those of a peacock, the orange tapering into reds and whites. The jaws were enormous, and its head was massive. If it had arms, they were tiny and hidden beneath the fur.
  1230.     “How big is that thing?” Baker gasped. Jaeger was curious too, he didn't know how big those trees were, and so he had no frame of reference.
  1231.     “Maybe...fifty feet from nose to tail, she weighs about ten tons.”
  1232.     “That's bigger than a T-Rex,” Baker said as he watched the monitor with wide eyes, “bigger than a Giganotosaurus.”
  1233.     “Watch closely, Earth'nay,” Coza said with a proud flurry of feathers. “This is the most magnificent predator that Val'ba'ra has produced.”
  1234.     The Teth'rak suddenly sprang to life, rushing out from beneath the cover of the trees and thundering towards the flock of skittish birds. The view from the monitor was from above and behind, looking down, giving them a good view of the animal's body as the sunlight reflected off its orange covering. The head was so massive in proportion to its body, it made Jaeger think of a wrecking ball, he could see the bulging jaw muscles even from such a great distance. Its torso was barrel-shaped, tapering into a long tail that it held out as straight as a rod behind it as it ran. It propelled itself on a pair of massive legs, as thick around as the trunks of the trees, its three-toed feet tipped with claws and covered in exposed scales that were yellow in color like a chicken. It kicked up great clods of dirt with every step, Jaeger could practically feel its weight and power, the rippling muscles visible even beneath its beautiful coat.
  1235.     As it rushed towards the water's edge, there was a fluttering in the feathers around its neck and shoulders, the plumes standing on end to expose a layer of vibrant red beneath the orange. From the perspective of the prey animals, it must have looked like an explosion with teeth was charging at them.
  1236.     Its hapless targets immediately formed a tightly-knit group and fled, moving like a shoal of fish, speeding away across the blue-green grass on their long legs. The Teth'rak had the element of surprise, however. It closed rapidly, smashing one of the stragglers with a sideswipe from its titanic head, using it like a hammer to knock the animal clear off its feet. It rolled and tumbled, dazed, and then the Teth'rak opened its monstrous jaws to reveal rows of carnivore teeth that must have been nearly as long as Jaeger's forearm.
  1237.     It closed the jaws around its prey and bit down, the Gue'tra going limp as the bite crushed its bones, and the fangs ripped through its flesh. The beast ate, tearing the smaller bird almost in half and raising its snout towards the sky, wolfing down its meal without so much as chewing.
  1238.     “She's putting on a show for our guests,” Maza laughed. “Isn't she magnificent?”
  1239.     “Okay, now I see why you need a two hundred foot wall,” Jaeger conceded as he ran his fingers through his damp hair. “What the fuck...”
  1240.     “The wall isn't just for keeping out Teth'rak,” Xico added eagerly, staring up at him with her violet eyes. “It has many other important functions. But yes, it would not do to have her running around the city center.”
  1241.     “It's as I said,” Maza warbled. “Earth has lions, Val'ba'ra has Teth'rak.”
  1242.     “I'm not sure you could even bring that thing down with a railgun,” Baker laughed, and the Valbarans gave him a shocked look.
  1243.     “Why would you do that?” Ayau asked, “it's just an animal. As long as you stayed out of her territory, she would have no quarrel with you.”
  1244.     “I didn't mean I actually wanted to hunt it,” Baker said apologetically, “I just meant that it looks tough. We had animals like that on Earth at one point, but they went extinct millions of years ago.”
  1245.     “Oh no!” Ayau wailed, her feathers puffing up in a shade of deep blue that could only convey sadness or regret. “What happened to them? Was it a famine or a plague?”
  1246.     “Nope, an asteroid impact. Our ancestors evolved from the small mammals that survived the extinction.”
  1247.     “That's terrible!” she trilled.
  1248.     “The mammals that evolved on Val'ba'ra are small burrowing creatures mostly, they could fit in the palm of your hand,” Maza added. “You evolved from such animals?”
  1249.     “Yeah,” Baker replied, “we had giant reptiles called dinosaurs that existed before us. They grew big, not too far removed from your feathery friend over there, then an asteroid hit and wiped out everythin' bigger'n a mouse.”
  1250.     “Now I can only think of you Earth'nay as little whiskered things scurrying around on the ground,” she said with a wide grin and a mischievous flutter of her headdress, “trying to avoid the stomping feet of reptiles.”
  1251.     “Oh, is that how it is?” Jaeger replied, crossing his arms and giving her a sarcastic look. “Big talk for someone who's scarcely tall enough to reach my chest.”
  1252.     She laughed at that, and then her demeanor became sly. She signaled to her companions with a flash of colorful feathers, complex patterns playing across the LCD panels on her forearms. It was like a form of sign language, one that Baker and Jaeger couldn't even begin to guess the meaning of. Her friends huddled around her again, hissing and warbling, Coza peeking out from the group for a moment to sneak a glance at Jaeger. He knew enough to know that they were plotting something. They finally broke ranks, Maza standing defiantly before him with her hands planted on her wide hips, her long tail waving back and forth.
  1253.     “I've seen how far an Earth'nay can run,” she said, “but I'm curious to see how you fight.”
  1254.     “What?” Jaeger asked skeptically.
  1255.     “Let's spar! Earth'nay do that, right? In training, or maybe in play?”
  1256.     He exchanged a glance with Baker, who shrugged at him, clearly amused by the situation.
  1257.     “We do train in hand to hand combat,” Jaeger admitted. “But you realize that I'm probably three times your weight, right? I don't know if it's a good idea, I wouldn't want to hurt you by accident.”
  1258.     “Oh ho!” Coza laughed, the plumes on her head flashing in yellow and orange. “You assume that a creature as slow as you could lay a finger on a Val'ba'ra'nay?”
  1259.     “Come on, little mouse,” Maza teased. “Let's call it...inter-species morale building. Val'ba'ra'nay practice fighting with their flock all the time to stay sharp, and to memorize all of the moves and stances.”
  1260.     She looked back at her flock, who trilled and flashed their feathers in amusement. They were like a gaggle of schoolgirls goading on a classmate.
  1261.     “Come on, Bullseye,” Baker said with a grin. “Our pride is on the line here.”
  1262.     Jaeger caved, shrugging as his companions laughed at him. Maza hit a panel on the wall, and the platform descended, carrying them down to the pathway atop the wall. It rose back into the air and sealed the hole that it had created once they had stepped off it, Jaeger watching it vanish seamlessly into the floor of the lookout tower.
  1263.     Maza kept her eyes on his, unblinking, and something about the intensity of her stare made him feel odd again. She took off her gloves and rolled up her sleeves, then she began to bounce on the spot, limbering up. Seeing that she was serious, Jaeger rolled up his own sleeves, exposing his forearms and cracking his knuckles. He might be a pilot, but everyone in the UNN did the same physical training regardless of their branch. A pilot should be as well versed in small arms and self-defense as an infantryman.
  1264.     “Alright guys,” Baker said, putting on an announcer's voice as he circled the pair. “I wanna see a clean fight. No bitin', no scratchin', and no hits below the belt. May the best species win!”
  1265.     “But no pressure,” Jaeger grumbled, scowling at him. He shrugged off his rucksack and then raised his fists in a defensive position, facing off against Maza as the breeze blew his hair. “I'm gonna go easy on you,” he said, “I'm pretty sure I could break your bones just by falling on you.”
  1266.     “Then it will be your first mistake,” she replied with a grin. She took up a stance, it reminded him of something from a martial arts movie. Wait, did the Valbarans have martial arts?
  1267.     Her flock cheered her on, Coza especially seemed eager to see her species outdo the humans, watching intently as her raised plumes fluttered with anticipation. Jaeger wondered for a moment why she wasn't doing the fighting herself, she was noticeably stockier than her sisters, a little larger too.
  1268.     Maza suddenly moved, like a bolt of lightning she barreled towards him, cutting through the air like a knife. He didn't even have time to react, his eyes could scarcely track her movements, and the next thing he was aware of was the feeling of something sharp pressing against his belly.
  1269.     “Looks like you're dead, little mouse,” Maza said.
  1270.     He looked down to see her pointed claws resting against his stomach, the little alien poised to gut him. He should have guessed, she fought as fast as she ran. She hopped backwards, taking up another stance as she fluttered her feathers. There was something flirtatious about the way that her plumes flashed in shades of pink and yellow, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
  1271.     “Alright, so that's how it's going to be,” he said as he readied himself for a second round. “You won't take me off guard this time.”
  1272.     “Oh, I think I will,” she crooned. “How about I let you strike first this time?”
  1273.     “If you insist,” he said with a shrug, “but I'm warning you that I might hit harder than you imagine.”
  1274.     “That won't be a problem,” she laughed. He squared up, raising his fists, and he began to inch closer to her. She was just standing there, completely open, not even making an attempt to defend herself. He leaned in and delivered a right jab, still pulling his punches for fear of hurting the little creature, his closed fist was almost as large as her head. Her stature made him feel like he was beating on a little girl.
  1275.     Maza dodged out of his way, moving so fast that it made him look like he was standing still in comparison. She gripped his wrist in her hand, pulling him forwards with alarming strength, the tendril that protected the feathers on her forearm coiling around his limb like a tentacle for extra purchase. Her thick tail tripped him, knocking him off balance, and before he had even had registered what had happened, he found himself face-down on the floor. She had bound his feet together with her tail, it felt like an anaconda was coiling around him. She had one tiny foot planted on his rump, and she was holding one arm behind his back. She had effectively hog-tied him, he was completely immobilized.
  1276.     Baker was almost in hysterics, hooting at him as he struggled in vain.
  1277.     “She's a lot stronger than she looks!” Jaeger protested. God damn, her muscles were like iron, he couldn't wriggle free. She finally released him, Jaeger rising to his feet and brushing himself off as she smirked up at him. There was that stare again, her violet eyes piercing through him, intense and somehow hungry. It made him feel...strange, a shiver running down his spine that wasn't entirely unpleasant. It made him uncomfortable when she looked at him like that, but he couldn't help but feel as if it had a deeper meaning in her culture, as if he was somehow acquiescing to her by failing to maintain that unblinking gaze.
  1278.     He blinked and averted his eyes, the corners of her scaly lips curling into a smile, a red flush spreading through her plumage. Could that be an expression of aggression, something else? He had no point of reference, only his own biases.
  1279.     “Come on, Jaeger,” Maza said as she began to dance on the spot again. “Stop holding out on me.”
  1280.     He cracked his neck and then raised his hand to the zipper on his Navy jumpsuit, pulling it down to the belt and sliding his arms out of his sleeves. He let the upper half of the uniform hang about his waist, and beneath it, he was wearing a simple white t-shirt that was already stained with sweat due to the heat and humidity. He rolled his arms, feeling the cool breeze on his damp skin, letting it cool him for a moment.
  1281.     Maza shifted her gaze from his eyes to his torso, examining his body, the fabric of his shirt clinging to his skin and leaving little to the imagination. He remembered the time that she had joined him in the shower back on the Rorke, how intensely she had inspected him, her expression hidden behind her opaque visor. Had she been motivated by simple curiosity then, or something else?
  1282.     He readied himself again, this time determined to at least get one hit in, or Baker would never let him forget it. Maza waited for him, those violet eyes unflinching. He stepped forward and delivered a roundhouse kick, aiming for her head, but she blocked it with her forearm. Despite her small size, she weathered the blow, skidding a little on the flush ground but keeping her balance. She was fast enough to have avoided that attack easily, she had let it land, perhaps wanting to test his strength.
  1283.     He delivered another punch, which she parried, knocking it aside. She moved so quickly, it was mechanical, like she was running on pure intuition rather than needing to think about anything that she was doing. He followed up with another punch, which she blocked, and then a leg sweep that she deftly jumped over. Her reaction times were incredible, but he had seen how little stamina she had. If he could keep up the pressure, he might be able to exhaust her. He could keep this up all day, but she couldn't.
  1284.     “You've got her on the ropes!” Baker shouted.
  1285.     “Stop toying with the Earth'nay and finish it!” Coza trilled, not to be outdone.
  1286.     As Jaeger harried Maza with swift punches, keeping her on her toes even if not one of them found its intended mark, he could see that she was beginning to tire. She made her move, not willing to let him drain her energy, leaping up onto him like an angry cat. He briefly felt her hands touch his shoulders as she vaulted clear over his head, catching his neck in her tail as she landed behind him and using what little body weight she had to knock him off balance.
  1287.     He toppled over backwards, the little alien catching his arm between her thighs and holding it tightly, the grip of her tail around his neck tightening. His bicep bulged as he tried to break free, and it took all of her strength to keep a hold on him, his forearm alone was almost as long as her torso. Her tail was oddly soft, pudgy, as were her thighs. There was a layer of yielding fat that he could feel under her clothing, and beneath it was steely muscle.
  1288.     Jaeger heaved, lifting her clear off the floor as she clung to his arm like a sailor clinging to the mast of a ship in a violent storm, rolling over onto his front. She scrambled to escape, releasing her hold on him and uncoiling her tail from around his neck, but she had no hope of lifting him off her. She weighed about fifty pounds, and he weighed one hundred and seventy last time he had checked.
  1289.     Her little body relaxed as he pinned her wrists against the floor, his damp hair hanging over his face as he loomed over her, casting her into deep shadow. He was so massive in comparison. The width of his shoulders was twice that of hers, maybe a little more, and his hands dwarfed her own such that he could easily enclose her fists in his.
  1290.     Baker cheered, but it sounded distant to Jaeger, the breathy laughter coming from Maza capturing all of his attention. She was out of breath, her chest rising and falling rapidly beneath the concealing flight suit, laughing giddily as she gazed up at him with those purple eyes. A few stray droplets of his sweat rained down on her as she lay beneath him, laid out on the ground like she was posing for the cover of a magazine, her arms pinned above her head. Her headdress was extended, the two tentacle sheaths standing out rigidly as her feathers flushed a rosy shade of pink.
  1291.     He came to his senses after a moment, releasing her and rising off her, the little reptile springing to her feet. She shook her head, her feathers waving in the air, and then they folded back down into their protective covers. Coza seemed disappointed by the outcome, scowling at them from the sidelines, but the rest of the pack were whispering excitedly to one another.
  1292.     “Not bad for a mammal,” Maza said, trotting closer to give a playful punch on the arm. “And a male at that. Let's call it a tie.”
  1293.    
  1294. CHAPTER 10: HOME SWEET HOME
  1295.    
  1296.     The train car raced along the track with a silent grace, the twisted, sculpted spires of the city center rising in front of them as they descended the wall. They took a branching path, turning away from the city and angling off towards what Jaeger had assumed to be the residential band. The little domed houses sped past beneath him as he peered out of the window, cloaked in rolling hills and picturesque nature.
  1297.     “I thought we were going to the city?” he asked, turning to Maza who was sat beside him.
  1298.     “We should drop your gear off at our home first, and I need to change into something more casual. I can't walk around in my flight suit all day.”
  1299.     “I wish I could say the same,” he grumbled, turning back to the window. “We're supposed to wear our uniforms for the duration of our stay, we're representing the UNN, after all.”
  1300.     He was starting to see other Valbarans for the first time, pedestrians walking about on the twisting paths below, some on foot and some riding scooters. They wore colorful clothes, resembling flowing shirts and tunics, with shorts of varying lengths. Not one of them traveled alone, they all had several companions, moving around in groups like the flocks of birds from which they got their name.
  1301.     As much as he envied the Valbarans for essentially eliminating loneliness, it was all becoming a little...utopian for his liking. The aliens were clearly deeply collectivist by nature, and it made him wonder what kind of individualism had developed in their culture, if any. Their pristine, sparkling city, their environmentalism and their dedication to sustainable living. Surely there had to be some kind of caveat, something ugly lurking beneath the whitewashed surface? Or maybe he was just being cynical, unwilling to admit that their culture did certain things better than his own.
  1302.     The train slid into another one of the sculpted awnings, and the party stepped off, the car zipping away to service another citizen somewhere along the massive rail network. That was one of the benefits of planning out your city as a cohesive engineering project with no intention of expanding it beyond the initial design, it made public transportation very easy to manage. The Valbarans had little need for cars, or indeed anything larger than their scooters.
  1303.     He found himself standing in what looked very much like a park. There was a pathway beneath his boots made from what almost looked like white sand, sparkling in the sunlight. It wasn't loose like sand, however. The texture was more like asphalt. He was surrounded by trees, their leaves swaying gently in the wind, and there were bushes with colorful flowers that lined the walkway to either side. He couldn't see very far. Wherever he looked, his line of sight seemed to be obscured, either by the fat tree trunks or by the very landscape itself, carefully shaped to obscure all artificial structures from view. It was sublime, they must have put so much thought and planning into it.
  1304.     “I feel like I'm on a golf course at a country club,” Baker whispered, Jaeger chuckling at the visual.
  1305.     “Shall we get some scooters?” Jaeger asked, but Maza shook her head.
  1306.     “We'll do things the human way, it's not too far of a trek. I got the impression that you didn't much care for our transportation methods.”
  1307.     “A little precarious maybe,” he admitted. “Not all of us have stabilizing tails, you know.”
  1308.     “You just suck at driving,” Baker added.
  1309.     “That's a fair point actually,” Maza said. She flashed her feathers, then she and her friends huddled together again, chittering and warbling in their native tongue. When they broke ranks, Maza made her way over to Jaeger, taking him firmly by the hand and beginning to lead him down the pathway. He turned to look back at Baker, who was being rapidly ferried away by the four other aliens, ushering him towards the scooter racks beside the mag-lev station.
  1310.     “Aren't they coming with us?” Jaeger asked.
  1311.     “Baker and my companions prefer to use the Scooters,” she explained, “but you and I can take a more scenic route if you should prefer.”
  1312.     “I really don't mind that much,” he protested, “if you want to-”
  1313.     Maza wasn't having any of it, the feather sheath on her forearm snaking out to wrap around his wrist, her sleeves still rolled up to her elbows from their sparring match.
  1314.     “Nonsense, come. You are my guest.”
  1315.     Baker looked alarmed, the gaggle of aliens chattering and whistling as they practically pushed him onto the scooter and set him off along a different branch of the pathway, the whir of their electric motors fading. Jaeger paused, watching his friend vanish into the trees, Maza giving him a tug to encourage him along.
  1316.     “Uh...alright then,” he conceded.
  1317.     They walked in silence for a few minutes, Jaeger taking in the sights and sounds of the local environment. The blue-green leaves rustled in the wind, and he could hear the calls of alien birds, though they were unfortunately out of sight.
  1318.     “How does it compare to Earth?” she asked, glancing up at him. She seemed chipper, happy to have some time alone with him perhaps.
  1319.     “It's similar in some ways, very different in others,” he replied as he turned his head this way and that. “These fat trees, for example. We have a species on Earth called a baobab that looks very similar, except that it grows only in very arid environments, and the leaves don't look like palm fronds.”
  1320.     “Palm fronds?” she asked.
  1321.     “Another type of tropical tree, their leaves look like these,” he said as he pointed to the blue-tinted canopy. “I wanted to ask, why are there so many blue and purple plants?”
  1322.     “Oh?” she responded curiously, “what color are the plants on earth?”
  1323.     “Pretty much exclusively green. I thought it might be because your sun is a little different to ours, maybe they can photosynthesize in different spectrums of light or something like that.”
  1324.     “Maybe. Of course, from my perspective, some plants have always been that color.”
  1325.     “It's nice,” he added, “refreshing.”
  1326.     “I wanted to ask you something too,” she said, her head bobbing as she walked along beside him. She still had a tight hold on his hand. “You said that with Earth'nay, the males are larger than the females, correct?”
  1327.     “Yeah, that's the case for all mammals, I'm pretty sure. It's not really very pronounced. You've met human women, Doctor Evans for example.”
  1328.     “So Earth'nay like their women to be smaller than them?”
  1329.     “Some do, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “Scratcher certainly doesn't...”
  1330.     “And how about you?”
  1331.     “I guess I've never really thought about it.”
  1332.     Maza stopped beside the pathway, keeping her tight hold on his hand as if afraid that he might escape her, and reached down to pick a yellow flower from one of the bushes. She held it to her nose for a moment, and then raised it towards his face. He felt her dexterous tail on his shoulder, guiding him down, and he crouched obediently to smell it. The scent reminded him of oranges, and she watched him expectantly with her unblinking eyes, as if expecting a response.
  1333.     “Smells nice,” he said, and she gave him a flutter of pink from her feathers. She caught the flower by its stem in her tentacle with remarkable finesse, she had such fine control over it that it might as well have been an extra finger, using it to reach his head which was slightly out of range of her hand.
  1334.     She placed it in his hair, then drew back, the tentacle opening into a flare of pink plumes along with those on her head. He wasn't sure how to react, military men didn't commonly wear flowers in their hair. Perhaps it was some kind of ritual, like the wreaths of flowers presented to visitors on the Hawaiian islands?
  1335.     “You should let your hair grow out,” she said, “it would look good.”
  1336.     “I...don't think UNN regulations allow that,” he replied stiffly, averting his eyes from her intense stare again.
  1337.     “Come,” she said, changing the subject and tugging him along the path. “I'll show you the lake by our house.”
  1338.     They carried on, the sand-colored walkway snaking through the trees, Jaeger always keeping an eye out for a peek of white as if trying to confirm to himself that these aliens weren't quite as perfect as they seemed. He never once spotted an artificial structure from the path, as hard as he tried. The nature around them was immaculate. They finally arrived at the shore of the small lake that Maza had described, more of a pond in his opinion, wrapping around the base of a hill that was covered in vibrant flowers. Winged insects buzzed between the petals, and he could make out fish swimming beneath the water. The Valbaran equivalent of a Koi carp perhaps?
  1339.     His willful companion let go of his arm, locking her legs to rest for a moment after their short walk, while he approached the water's edge and crouched to peer at the aquatic creatures. There was movement beneath the surface, but what he saw was not the silvery, shining scales of a fish. These animals were bulky and armored, with bony plates protecting their bodies. Their fins were not gossamer skin stretched over spines, but rather muscular flippers. They were about the same size as a trout, but far heavier, colored a dull brown that camouflaged them against the pond bed. When one of them rose to the surface to catch an errant, pond-skipping insect, he noticed that their jaws were lined with blade-like teeth.
  1340.     “Don't worry, they're afraid of anything larger than they are,” Maza said. “You can dip your feet into the water without worrying about losing your toes if you want to. It's nice to go for a swim sometimes, helps you to cool off.”
  1341.     “I think I'm good,” he replied, rising to his feet. Even across the lake, he couldn't see another building, and he noticed that the water seemed to be supplied by an underground pipe that was only visible when he made a point of searching for it. All of the lakes and rivers might be connected through one invisible network, and he remembered the larger spillways that he had seen spewing water at the base of the wall.
  1342.     “We should press on,” Maza said, unlocking her legs and gesturing for him to follow. There was probably a specific feather flutter in Valbaran body language that meant 'follow me', but she mostly switched to the human equivalents that she had picked up during her time on the Rorke in his presence, smiling and nodding and other such things. It was remarkable that she had managed to remember them all, and what context they were supposed to be used in.
  1343.     He followed behind her as she led him around the corner, and after maybe another hundred feet, a building finally came into view. The first impression that it gave him was that of a plastic igloo. The dwelling was dome-shaped and made from smooth, white material. It was featureless save for the round windows and the low door which had a tunnel-like porch. There was one dome that seemed to serve as the main house, and then there were two smaller ones that branched off it, it almost looked like a trio of soap bubbles. The roof looked low, even for the Valbarans, and he worried that he might have some serious trouble walking about inside. The structure was nestled between two hills, and there was a carpet of flowers around it, with a small grove of trees nearby to provide shade. It was certainly picturesque, like a space-age country cottage.
  1344.     “This is where we live,” Maza announced, “what do you think?”
  1345.     “Why the dome shape?” he asked.
  1346.     “It's the most efficient shape for a dwelling. It's structurally very strong, it's easier to heat and to cool, thus making it friendlier to the environment.”
  1347.     As they made their way to the tunnel-like entrance, he noticed that there were five scooters lined up in a long rack beside it. Baker and the rest of Maza's flock had arrived long before they had. The entrance too was arched, and he had to duck down to avoid hitting his head. It was narrow as well, his shoulders scuffed the walls as Maza led him towards the door. It swung inwards, the alien holding the door open for him courteously, and when he stepped over the threshold, he saw that the building actually extended a fair distance below ground. This made the roof much higher than it had appeared on the outside, and he found himself able to stand unhindered, at least towards the center of the domed ceiling.
  1348.     The interior was as strange as the exterior. It was indeed perfectly circular on the inside, and it seemed that every item of furniture had been made with that in mind. The tables and shelves were crescent-shaped, adhering to the curve of the walls, and even what looked like a television screen was subtly concave so as to conform to the angle of the surface that it was mounted on. The only exceptions were the seating arrangements, which along with a couple of circular tables, were the only things that weren't pressed up against the walls. There were the usual director's chairs that he had grown accustomed to seeing, along with a long couch that had no backrest, which looked as if it could seat several of the little creatures at once.
  1349.     The floor was carpeted with a deep shag that was almost like fur, although it must be synthetic, as Maza had told him that the only mammals on Valbara were small rodent-like creatures. You'd need a hell of a lot of them to carpet a floor of this size. The interior walls were also white, although the tone was a little warmer, closer to beige perhaps. Sunlight flooded in through the round windows, they looked like portholes, and the interior was well lit by natural light.
  1350.     The decorations were just like the trees, familiar in some ways, yet alien and unrecognizable in others. There were a lot of potted plants around the room, sitting on the shelves and spaced around the base of the wall. It almost made the furniture look like it was protruding from the undergrowth of a sparse jungle. There were photographs too, not framed pictures, but rather holographic images displayed using some kind of metal disk with a lens in its center. They displayed pictures of Valbarans at various stages of life, engaged in diverse activities. Jaeger found it a little hard to tell them apart, at least the ones that he hadn't personally met. If he had to guess, it was probably Maza's flock, and perhaps their relatives.
  1351.     One of them was clearly a photo of the flock, standing in a row and holding some kind of Y-shaped sticks with netting on the end. They were wearing tunics that were the same color and design, with alien markings that he couldn't decipher. Was it some kind of sport perhaps, like hockey or lacrosse? There were a few other sundries scattered about, ornaments of alien design and what might have been shelves of either books or data storage containers.
  1352.     The rest of Maza's flock spilled into the living area from an adjacent room, greeting their fellow with high-pitched whistles and feather displays, Baker trailing behind them.
  1353.     “You gotta try this, Jaeger,” he said. He was eating some kind of bar-shaped food item that was wrapped in foil. “It's great! Why do you have a flower in your hair?”
  1354.     Jaeger hastily brushed the plant away, then he narrowed his eyes at Baker's snack.
  1355.     “Oh for- did you use the scanner on that?”
  1356.     “No,” he mumbled through a mouthful of whatever it was.
  1357.     “For fuck's sake Baker, bring it here. If we have to go get your stomach pumped I'm going to throw you to the Teth'rak.”
  1358.     He slung his pack off his back and rummaged inside it, retrieving the handheld scanner. It was a food analyzer used by Marines in the field, designed to let then know if alien food sources were safe to eat or not. Baker handed over the candy bar, and Jaeger ran the scanner over it, watching as the results displayed on a small built-in screen.
  1359.     “You're in luck, there's nothing we can't digest in it,” he said as he passed it back to his friend.
  1360.     “Oh, that's a relief,” Baker replied as he took another large bite, talking as he chewed. “What's it made from?”
  1361.     “Sugar, some kind of native grain,” Jaeger said as he read from the display. “Fruit enzymes and...insect protein.” Baker stopped chewing, his face turning an unhealthy shade of white, and he slowly turned his eyes down to the brown bar of food. “You're eating processed bugs, Baker.”
  1362.     He considered for a moment, then swallowed, shrugging his shoulders.
  1363.     “Can't be any worse than the Chinese food we ate that time we refueled on Ganymede. I'm pretty sure those 'pork buns' were actually rat meat.”
  1364.     “That's what you get for buying food from street vendors,” Jaeger sighed, “I told you not to trust that guy. It could have been cooked over a reactor exhaust vent for all you know.”
  1365.     “Do humans not eat insects?” Maza asked.
  1366.     “Not commonly,” Jaeger replied. “It's been proposed as a meat substitute in a lot of places, but it never catches on.”
  1367.     “Really? But it's such a good source of protein, and it's so much easier to farm than large herbivores. We raise food insects alongside our hydroponic farms.”
  1368.     “Hydroponics?” Jaeger asked, “I wondered why I couldn't see any farmland from the air.”
  1369.     “We do have more traditional farms,” she explained, “mostly in the mountains where the large predators don't roam. But hydroponic farms allow us to grow our crops inside the city limits, which has obvious benefits.”
  1370.     “Yeah, like not ending up on someone else's plate...”
  1371.     “Let me show you around,” she said, taking him by the hand again. She dragged him over to the room that the flock had just left, the doorway was small and arched, and he ducked through it into another dome. This must be one of the three that he had seen from the exterior. It was round like the living room, and rather than carpeting, the floor was lined with bare material. This one had countertops and what looked like a stove pressed up against the walls. There was a water basin, what might have been fridge, and other kitchen utensils that he couldn't begin to identify.
  1372.     “This is where we prepare our food,” she said, “although we'll take you somewhere in the city if you'd like to sample Val'ba'ra'nay cuisine. I'm afraid that only Xico is much good at cooking.”
  1373.     The next room of their domed house was apparently the bedroom. It was a little smaller than the main dome, about the same size as the kitchen, and the entire floor was covered in a thick layer of plush cushioning. It was as if they had found a mattress that was the exact dimensions of the room and had just dropped it inside, like a marshmallow in a coffee cup. There were cushions and pillows scattered all around seemingly at random, and the bare walls had been draped with gossamer fabric that looked like curtains in shades of red and pink. They were purely decorative, perhaps the aliens found it more homely than the bare construction material. There were no windows in this dome, it was gloomy in comparison to the others, it certainly looked like an appropriate place to sleep.
  1374.     “No blankets?” he asked, “don't you get cold?”
  1375.     “Why would we be cold? We would just increase the temperature.”
  1376.     “Fair enough.”
  1377.     It seemed that they all slept together on the same bed...room? There wasn't really a distinction between the two, the room itself was the bed. It seemed strange to him, but he had to remember that their culture was entirely alien. They were a collectivist species, and so sleeping with other people might not carry the same connotations that it did in human culture. Borealans were the same, and the Krell too liked to sleep in gigantic piles by the edge of their basking pools. Perhaps it was just humans who had hangups.
  1378.     “I noticed that Earth'nay all have separate bunks,” she said, perhaps picking up on what he was thinking. “Val'ba'ra'nay all sleep together.”
  1379.     “You guys really do everything together, huh? I have a question though, where's the bathroom?”
  1380.     “The bathroom?” she asked, cocking her head at him.
  1381.     “Yeah, you know what a bathroom is. You've seen them on the Rorke.”
  1382.     “You're telling me that Earth'nay have bathrooms 'inside' their own dwellings?” she asked with a shocked flurry of feathers. “I thought that the ones on the Rorke were just there due to necessity.”
  1383.     “We do, yes. Where else would you put a bathroom?”
  1384.     “Outside, away from your living area. It's basic hygiene. There's another dome that's separate from the main structure, off behind the hill where it's out of view. That's where our bathroom is.”
  1385.     “So you have outhouses? Weird. Where do you bathe?”
  1386.     “Usually in the lakes.”
  1387.     “Really?” he asked skeptically, raising an eyebrow at her. “I always pegged the Valbarans as a modest people. I remember that you wouldn't disrobe so that Evans could inspect you. I'm surprised to hear that you bathe in public.”
  1388.     “It's not in public, the private lakes are hidden from view to people walking along the footpaths. They're obscured by the forests and terrain. That's one of the reasons that each house has its own water source, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. Bathing should be a relaxing affair, therapeutic, meditative.”
  1389.     “But what if a stranger should wander onto your property?”
  1390.     “Why would they do that?” she asked, and he had no answer. Did they have no crime and trespassing on Valbara? No peeping Toms? Could a society really be so cohesive that the very concept of someone entering their property without permission was completely foreign to them?
  1391.     “But your flock can see you?”  
  1392.     “That's different,” she said, “my flock are a part of me. They're my family. We bathe together, we bathe each other, there's no shame in that.”
  1393.     “And if you were to bathe in front of someone who wasn't a part of your flock?”
  1394.     “That would be very rude,” she said, “socially unacceptable. It would be seen either as an insult or as an invitation to engage in...sexual activity.”
  1395.     She flashed her feathers again in shades of pink and purple, a display of embarrassment perhaps? They really were a prudish species. Sure, nudity was looked down upon in most human societies, but there were contexts in which being naked was socially acceptable. In a sauna or in communal showers for example. The Borealans had far less shame than their human counterparts, they saw nudity as being completely natural, and the Krell didn't even have external genitalia to conceal. In the cramped quarters of a carrier or on a UNN station, privacy was a luxury, people just had to deal with it.
  1396.     “So when you followed me into the shower room on the Rorke...” he began.
  1397.     “Think nothing of it,” she replied, “I know that your culture is different from ours. We were guests on your ship, and it was obviously normal for Earth'nay. It would be wrong of me to judge you by our standards. Besides, you kept your...underclothes on for our benefit.”
  1398.     “Still, I didn't mean to offend you,” he said.
  1399.     “Oh, you didn't offend me,” she replied with a flash of pink.
  1400.     Baker poked his head into the bedroom, interrupting them.
  1401.     “So are we going to the city or what?” he asked.
  1402.     “Yes,” Maza replied, “you may put your bags in the living room and unpack anything that you need. Please wait for us while we change out of our uniforms.”
  1403.     She whistled to her friends, and they filed into the room one by one, Maza giving a Jaeger a smirk before pushing him out of the bedroom and closing the door behind him.
  1404.     “So if they all sleep in the same room, and they all bathe together, what are me and you supposed to do?” Baker continued.
  1405.     “We'll deal with that hurdle when we come to it. Come on, let's get our gear unpacked.”
  1406.    
  1407. ***
  1408.    
  1409.     She could taste it, smell it, see it through her arrays of photosensitive eyes and her clusters of antennae. The biomass that carpeted the planet's surface and filled its oceans, the fresh water, and the oxygen. The hunger that she had been struggling to stave off rose up once again to scratch at the back of her mind, impossible to ignore. It was so verdant and fertile, ripe for exploitation, even moreso than her mother's world had been. Her offspring could spread across its entire surface and colonize every continent, they could build tunnels deep beneath the fecund soil, where she would birth children by the millions. She would mother daughters of her own in time, and they would spread throughout the cosmos as she had, founding their own colonies and propagating the species.
  1410.     There would be soft, wet flesh to feast on, forests to strip of their succulent leaves. The Repletes would break every blade of grass and every bone down to their component parts, a sweet nectar of sugars and proteins, ready to feed the hungry mouths of her fleet. She could smell their pheromones from within the ship, the scents conveying their desperate need to eat, but all that she could do was reassure them that relief would come soon. She must act quickly, before her army grew too weak to fight and they had to begin cannibalizing their own, but acting rashly would be a mistake.
  1411.     The prize would be hard-won, the local fauna were organizing a defense. The entire globe was blanketed in a shield of artificial constructs and hostile ships, the heat that they radiated betraying the armaments that they no doubt carried. They had covered every angle, no matter where she emerged, her fleet would be met with fierce resistance. The aliens too had a Queen, however. It floated above the planet's Northern pole, radio signals from all of the other objects feeding into it, it commanded them. She could see the bursts of electromagnetic radiation like the flow of a stream, and that ship was the mouth. To stem the flow, she would have to kill it.
  1412.     While the planet's orbit was well defended, the surface was sparsely populated, she could taste the emissions that their puny hives leaked into the atmosphere. The population centers were small and scattered about the equator, easy targets. If she could break through the orbital defenses and land her Warriors and Drones on the ground, she could be assured of a swift victory. Perhaps she could use the mainstay of her fleet to poke holes in their blockade, and then land troops on the surface?
  1413.     She had to be decisive, there was no room for false starts. More information was needed, she must be sure that the surface was as ill-protected as it seemed...
  1414.     Her thoughts traveled up through the thick tube that secured her to the fleshy ceiling of her chamber, and which linked her nervous system to that of the hive ship, something in the bowels of the great beast stirring in response. She felt it as if it was happening to her own body, the simple intellect of the ship commanding one of the probes to awaken and crawl from its recess in the hull. It tickled the thick hide of the vessel as it crawled along its flank, its many pairs of jointed legs clutching the irregular and pockmarked carapace. It made its way to one of the magnetic accelerators, usually intended for plasma rounds, burrowing into the flexible joint with its sharp mandibles.
  1415.     The hive ship communicated its pain to her, but she knew that it would soon heal the damage, the living probe embedding itself into the barrel of the cannon. She had suspected that she might have to examine the planet from a distance, and so she had engineered this breed of probe for that very purpose. It was designed to be fired like a projectile rather than to be released from the ship's belly in clusters, as they were usually employed. It rolled up into a tight ball, its thick, reinforced shell partially composed of magnetic alloys. There was iron to ensure that it could be accelerated by the cannon, and titanium, which was weakly magnetic but which would protect it from the heat of reentry.
  1416.     She aimed the cannon carefully, accounting for gravity and rotation, the orbits of the planets and the placement of the alien objects. She had to be sure that the probe would enter the atmosphere at the right speed and angle so as not to burn up. Confident in her calculations, she ordered the ship to fire. A pulse of chemically-generated electricity created a magnetic field, which captured the probe bug and sent it hurtling into space.
  1417.     If her plan came to fruition, the probe would soon make it to the inner solar system. It would then arc around the star, using the gas giant's gravity well to decelerate to a speed where it could make an orbital insertion. It should be small and strong enough to survive reentry, as well as to avoid the attention of the defenders, and then it could evaluate a potential landing site.
  1418.     She soothed the vessel's simple mind as more of the probes emerged to scurry towards the cannon. Yes, it would hurt, but the more probes that she fired, the better a picture she would have of their ground fortifications and numbers. The beast bellowed silently as she performed more calculations, watching the green planet hungrily through the glittering eyes that she shared with the hive ship.
  1419.  
  1420. CHAPTER 11: IT'S EVOLUTION, BABY
  1421.    
  1422.     The train car sped towards the city, the bands of greenery and the clusters of white structures flying past below. Jaeger watched the high-rise buildings race towards them, the mag-lev track passing between two of the curved structures.
  1423.     Maza and her friends were wearing the same loose-fitting tunics and knee-length shorts that seemed to be the fashion on Valbara. It was the most revealing thing that he had seen her wear. He was only interested in her anatomy, of course, which had previously been concealed beneath her full-body flight suit.
  1424.     Now he could see that her figure wasn't due to the suit itself, she was just naturally shaped that way. Her tight shorts gave away the shape of her body beneath the fabric, her thighs thick and powerful, disproportionate to her size. Her hips were similarly wide, tapering into a pinched waist, her torso short and narrow. Her entire lower body seemed to be powerfully built, which was no doubt the source of her inhuman speed and agility. Her flowing top concealed much of her upper body, and so it was hard to discern what lay beneath it. He could see more of her flexible neck and her arms than when she had been wearing her suit, however.
  1425.     The scales that coated her body were so fine and smooth, like a tiny mosaic, very slightly reflective when they caught the light at the right angle. Her companions were all similarly dressed, though the colors and patterning on their clothing differed, as did the subtleties of the design of their collars and sleeves. Some wore shirts that they tucked into their shorts, leaving a billowy pocket of fabric, and others wore them long so that they reached down to their thighs, which was how Maza preferred it. He noted that they wore no jewelry, no necklaces or rings. The only item that they all kept on their person was a small touch device that very much resembled a phone, and which fit snugly in their pockets.
  1426.     Baker caught him staring at the aliens, and leaned over to nudge him.
  1427.     “Wish we could wear shorts too,” he said, “I'm sweatin' my ass off in this uniform.”
  1428.     The train car had some kind of climate control, but the Valbarans seemed to like it a little hotter than humans did, and their uniforms were indeed stifling. Jaeger deigned to undo the top button on his collar, just to let himself breathe a little better. As he relaxed in his seat, he noticed something strange. He leaned forward to get a better look at the Valbaran who was sitting in front of him, his eyes widening.
  1429.     “What is...is that fur?”
  1430.     Ayau turned around, looking back at him over her shoulder. He hadn't noticed it before because it was the same color as her tan scales, but she had a coat of what looked like fine fur. There was none on her face, it seemed to start between her head-sheaths, and it grew thicker as it ran down her spine. It covered her back and shoulders where they were visible, running down her tail. There was even some of it on her legs, which was peeking out in tufts beneath the long shorts that she was wearing. It had previously been covered up by her flight suit, and the casual clothing that she now wore mostly exposed the non-furred parts of her body like her forearms, her lower legs, and her head.
  1431.     Baker leaned in too, the alien cocking her head at them as the two humans inspected her.
  1432.     “Did you not notice before?” Ayau asked, waving her fluffy tail back and forth. The smooth, hair-like structures seemed to taper into what more resembled feathers at the tip.
  1433.     “No!” Jaeger replied, fascinated. “Do all of you have fur under your clothes?”
  1434.     “It's not fur,” Xico corrected, “those are proto-feathers. And no, we don't all have them. Ayau'pal'lea is descended from ancestors who lived in the arctic forests and who used them as insulation.”
  1435.     “How is a proto-feather different from a feather?” Jaeger asked.
  1436.     “Well,” Xico began, “a feather used for flight or display is made up of a long stem called a 'rachis'. That stem then supports branching barbs which form a vane, a little like the branches of a tree. Less developed feathers used for insulation consist of a short, stubby rachis, from which a cluster of soft and flexible barbs extend. I suppose it looks a little like fur, and it serves the same function, but it’s actually a kind of feather.”
  1437.     “Can I touch it?” Baker asked, Jaeger elbowing him and shaking his head.
  1438.     “You can touch it,” Ayau said, “but only if you let me touch your fur.”
  1439.     “My fur?” Baker asked, confused. She pointed to his head, and he laughed. “Alright.”
  1440.     He leaned forward, and Ayau reached out a hand, running her fingers through his straw-colored hair. More of the flock became interested, two more hands reaching out to comb the strands. Xico laughed at the texture, and even the usually reserved Tacka was joining in, a smile on her scaly face. Being military men, there wasn't much more than about an inch, but it was long enough for the aliens to bury their small digits in it.
  1441.     “It's like mouse fur!” Ayau exclaimed.
  1442.     Maza and Coza were sat behind the two humans, and Jaeger turned his head to look back at them. Coza was sitting with her arms crossed, apparently not impressed, and Maza was peering at him expectantly. She reached out a hand, and Jaeger acquiesced, leaning backwards so that she could reach his hair. He felt her two dull claws on his scalp, the alien stroking his dark hair like a human might stroke a pet.
  1443.     “It's so soft,” she chuckled, glancing past him and sharing a flurry of pink and yellow feathers with Ayau. “Don't you want to touch it, Coza?”
  1444.     The surly Valbaran rolled her eyes, then uncrossed her arms and reached out to delve her fingers into Jaeger's hair. She was rougher than Maza, tugging at the strands, but she seemed to like the texture.
  1445.     “Alright, my turn,” Baker said as he warded off the aliens. He reached down towards Ayau's tail and combed his fingers through her feathery coat, his face lighting up. “Jaeger, come see this! It feels just like down.”
  1446.     Maza withdrew her hand from his hair as he leaned forward, joining Baker as he stroked the smooth feathers on Ayau's long tail. It really did feel like the down that you might find inside a pillow, incredibly soft and fluffy.
  1447.     “So is Ayau a different race than the rest of you?” Jaeger asked.
  1448.     “Yes,” Maza replied. “Is that so unusual? I noticed that you Earth'nay have several different variations. I didn't know if they were races or subspecies, or perhaps just environmental adaptations. I saw ones that had very dark skin and curly hair, ones with brown and tan skin, then there were some with very light skin and yellow hair.”
  1449.     “Yeah, those are races,” he said with a nod. “Those humans all come from different geographical regions of Earth, or at least they have a parent who did.”
  1450.     “As Xico explained, Ayau's ancestors lived in cold regions where they needed feathers to keep warm. My ancestors don't have them, we've always lived in temperate regions.”
  1451.     “But now you all live at the equator?” Jaeger asked.
  1452.     “Most Val'ba'ra'nay do, yes. We plan on a global scale, cities are placed with efficiency and their impact on the local ecosystem in mind. There are still cities in the colder regions, and in the sub-tropics, but the majority of our civilization is spread out around the equatorial regions. Especially following the exodus from Ker'gue'la, there are few cities divided along racial lines.”
  1453.     “We're coming up on the city,” Xico said, turning her head to look back at him. “Don't be worried if people stare, they mean you no harm. It's the first time many of them will have seen an alien in the flesh.”
  1454.     The skyscrapers just kept growing in the forward viewport of the car, towering above them, glinting in the sunlight. Below, the walkways were choked with natives, thousands of them rubbing shoulders as they went to and fro. The city center was no doubt where they worked, and also where most of the recreational facilities were, it would make sense judging by the circular design of the city. That kind of layout would make such things equally accessible to everyone regardless of where they lived.
  1455.     The train car slid to a stop at another awning, and they filed out onto the platform, the strange smells and sounds of the Valbaran city hitting him like a wall. In a human city, one would expect to smell smog and fumes, the air would be thick with the sound of vehicles driving and honking their horns. Here, the only sound was the chatter of voices, a chorus of whistles and warbles. It came across more like the song of a thousand tropical birds than as coherent speech. There were no foul odors, even here in the urban center, he could still smell the fresh air and the scents of native plants.
  1456.     “Clean,” Baker muttered, “sure makes Earth look like a shithole.”
  1457.     “Come on man,” Jaeger whispered, “we're representing humanity here. Try not to curse like a sailor.”
  1458.     “I 'am' a sailor.”
  1459.     As they followed Maza and her flock down the escalator, there was already a group of Valbarans ascending towards the platform on the adjacent side, their violet eyes fixing on the two humans as they passed. They seemed fascinated, their heads pivoting on their flexible necks to keep their gaze fixed on the aliens until they reach the top. When Jaeger stepped off onto the street, the tall buildings towering to either side of it, the crowd of Valbarans parted before him like the Red Sea. He felt a little self-conscious, there were a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on him, unblinking as they scrutinized his strange physiology and attire. It didn't help that he and Baker were a clear foot taller than everyone else. Their clothing was as diverse and as colorful as their feathers, which flashed and fluttered in all manner of hues, conveying emotions that probably ranged from shock and fear to excitement and curiosity. Immediately, a hundred recording devices were aimed at him. At least in that respect, the aliens had something in common with humans...
  1460.     Maza whistled to her flock, and they formed a perimeter around the humans, surprising Jaeger with their speed and coordination. Perhaps they had been prepared for this.
  1461.     A group of aliens stepped forward, another flock, and Maza warded them off with a flash of red and orange from her feathers. They halted and then began to talk with her, exchanging chirps and warbles. After a moment, they seemed to reach an understanding, Maza and her flock lowering their feathers.
  1462.     “You are Earth'nay!” one of the strangers said, “you come to help us?”
  1463.     “Are the Bugs coming for us?” another chimed, a worried murmur spreading through the crowd.
  1464.     “Is it true that you bring us weapons and ships?”
  1465.     “Where have you come from?”
  1466.     “They speak English too?” Baker muttered, “fuckin' language is spreadin' like a virus. How are they learnin' it so fast?”
  1467.     “They want to speak to you,” Maza explained, Jaeger straightening his uniform and taking a couple of steps forward. What was he supposed to say? There were a hundred cameras filming him, this footage would probably end up all over the planet in mere minutes. If he fudged this, Fielding would have his head, but he was no ambassador. The least he could do was take the initiative before Baker made an ass of them both.
  1468.     How much did they know? What was he authorized to tell them about the impending Bug invasion? In UNN space, the military often kept crucial information secret from the general public so as not to cause a panic, or for strategic reasons. Perhaps he should avoid that subject altogether.
  1469.     “Greetings,” he began, the city seeming to go silent as his voice echoed between the buildings. “My name is Lieutenant Jaeger, of the Coalition. My people, the Earth'nay, are members of a multi-species alliance that was assembled for our mutual protection. We were on a routine patrol, hunting for Bugs on the outskirts of your system, when we made contact with one of your ships. We come from a planet that's about sixty-five light-years away, we had no idea that you were here until we stumbled across you.”
  1470.     Maza gave him a reassuring nod, and so he continued, the crowd was captivated.
  1471.     “We came here on our jump carrier, the UNN Rorke, and we have a support fleet comprised of several smaller frigates. At this moment, our leader, Captain Fielding, is organizing and updating the defenses of your planet. We are indeed sharing weapons technology, manufacturing techniques, and other resources that will help to protect you in the event of a Bug attack.”
  1472.     “Are they coming?” someone shouted from the crowd.
  1473.     “Will it be like Ker'gue'la?”
  1474.     “Can the Earth'nay ships stop them?”
  1475.     Jaeger waved his hands, trying to calm them.
  1476.     “Rest assured, we are taking every measure to fortify your planetary defenses, and we're working closely with your military to coordinate our forces.”
  1477.     That seemed to satisfy most of them, the sound of their musical language returning as they discussed what he had said, many of them still filming him with what looked like phones or handheld computers. Maza whistled something in her native tongue and then ferried him away, her flock keeping the crowd from closing around them as they made their way through the throngs. Everyone wanted a look at the aliens, and Jaeger couldn't blame them. He remembered the first time that he had seen an alien in person, he had gawked at the poor Krell with his jaw agape for far longer than was polite.
  1478.     He raised his eyes to the sky, the spires of the alien buildings rising to either side of the path like the walls of a canyon, built from glass and metal rather than rock. They were smaller than some that he had seen on Earth, but still massive, their facades decorated with artistic buttresses and curving architecture. Unlike in human cities, there were no walkways linking them together above the street, each was its own self-contained building. He marveled at the ever-present balconies, protruding from the sides of the skyscrapers at seemingly random intervals, further than seemed structurally sound. They were covered in explosions of greenery, plants and vines spilling over the sides to hang precariously. He couldn't see any guard rails. The Valbarans liked heights, but even a seasoned pilot would probably find his head spinning if he approached the edge of one of those terraces and looked down to the street below.
  1479.     “Stay close to us,” Maza said. “There is no danger, but we don't want to become separated from you. The hospital is this way.”
  1480.     Jaeger felt like a celebrity. Everyone wanted a picture of him, there were so many questions being shouted at him that he couldn't even differentiate between the voices. As usual, there were no vehicles on the street, but there was what appeared to be a bike lane for scooters that was separate from the pathway so as to avoid collisions. The aliens driving along it turned their heads to gawk at him, and he was mildly concerned that the distraction he and Baker were creating might cause an accident.
  1481.     “I feel like they're gonna start asking us for autographs,” Baker said with a chuckle, apparently reveling in the attention. He was waving to the aliens like a monarch.
  1482.     The city center was barely the size of a few blocks back on Earth, and so they quickly reached the hospital building. It was just as large as the other skyscrapers, although perhaps a little wider and deeper. Where the other buildings had balconies covered in plants, this one had landing pads jutting from its walls at various floors. They were clearly designed for airborne emergency vehicles of some sort, but he couldn't see much from below. He was curious as to what kind of propulsion they used, as the VTOL capability of the Valbaran vessels that he had encountered so far had not been very impressive. He was amused to see a glowing sign above the door in alien text, which must be designed to be visible at night, just like the neon signs back on Earth.
  1483.     They entered through an expansive lobby that was sparsely decorated with potted plants, dozens of Valbarans who were sitting in rows on benches as they waited to be seen staring at them as they walked up to a counter at the far end of the room. Standing behind it and peering intently at a holographic display was a new type of Valbaran that Jaeger hadn't seen before.
  1484.     It was slight, even in comparison to the likes of Maza, who was already small by human standards. Its physiology was overall lighter and less muscular, and it was an inch shorter than the others, with smaller jaws and a slightly less pronounced snout. Oddly, the tentacles on the head and forearms were larger and thicker than those of Maza and the other Valbarans. It was quite pretty, Jaeger thought. Its scales seemed to have been polished to a glossy sheen, and its eyes were wide and bright. Was that...some kind of paint or makeup around its eyes, like mascara? It wore jewelry too. There was a silver chain around its neck made from fine links, from which hung a pendant, decorated with tufts of colorful feathers that must have been sourced from one of the animals that lived outside the wall. There was another silver chain draped over its forehead, apparently secured around the base of the feather sheaths on its head, with a shining gemstone that looked like emerald or jade hanging down between its eyes.
  1485.     Maza flashed a feathery greeting, the alien bowing its head and returning the gesture. Jaeger lurched backwards in alarm as it extended its two massive tentacles, the feathers within exploding outwards. Its headdress was huge, probably a third larger than Maza's. Not only were the plumes vibrant and colorful, but they were decorated with peacock-like patterning and branching quills. It looked heavy, and he found himself wondering how the creature could even keep its head up.
  1486.     “Relax, it's just a male,” Coza whispered to him. “A cute one at that...”
  1487.     Apparently, the male was some kind of secretary, and he directed the group towards one of several automatic doors to either side of the counter. When they opened, Jaeger saw that they were cylindrical elevators, small and cramped by human standards but large enough to fit maybe ten Valbarans. Of course, they did everything as a flock, and so things like elevators would need to be larger to accommodate so many of them.
  1488.     They stepped inside, and the elevator began to rise silently, only the feeling of acceleration giving it away. More magnetic technology, the aliens seemed to use it for everything. It was a good thing that his phone was shielded or the memory would have been scrambled a dozen times by now. Suddenly, a flash of light illuminated the dingy capsule from behind him, and he turned to see windows racing by. The rear wall was made of transparent material. Jaeger looked out on the city as the elevator shot upwards at alarming speed, able to see some of the balconies on the adjacent skyscrapers from above now, like tiny gardens cloaked in green and purple leaves. There were a few natives milling about on them, relaxing or peering over the edges. They really did take to heights, there wasn't a guard rail in sight.
  1489.     He felt himself grow lighter as the elevator decelerated, coming to a stop at their desired floor. The doors opened, and the group stepped out onto a carpeted surface, Baker and Jaeger having to duck to avoid hitting their heads on the door frame. The corridor that they were standing in was small too, Jaeger could feel his head brushing against the ceiling, and it was barely wide enough to let two humans pass each other. This must be how Borealans felt walking around in human facilities.
  1490.     There were more doors lining the whitewashed walls, and one of them slid open, another male stepping out with a tablet computer of some sort clasped in his two-fingered hand. He was wearing a form-fitting jumpsuit, not dissimilar from those worn by the military and the air force, but this one was a pale green in color. Jaeger was surprised to see that his figure was not so different from that of the females, he had the same large thighs and wide hips, along with a short torso and narrow shoulders. This one wasn't wearing any decorations, perhaps because of his job. He seemed to be some kind of medical professional judging by the unidentifiable tools that were dangling from his belt. He looked up at them, flashing his massive, ornate headdress in greeting and bowing his head in deference. They were certainly submissive.
  1491.     “This way, please.”
  1492.     He led them down the hallway, bobbing along in the strange way that his kind did, and Jaeger chatted with Maza as he walked along beside her.
  1493.     “So what's the deal with the males? These are the first that I've seen. I don't think there were even any of them on the street, at least that I noticed.”
  1494.     “There were a few,” she replied. “But males are less numerous than females, and they tend to do work that keeps them inside.”
  1495.     “Like what?” Jaeger asked, “and what do you mean by them being less numerous?” He had known that there was some gender imbalance in Valbaran society, but not to this extent.
  1496.     “Based on the population of your carrier, I'm going to assume that there are as many male Earth'nay born as females, correct?”
  1497.     “Just about, yeah. I think it's slightly skewed in favor of women, but not by a lot.”
  1498.     “On Val'ba'ra, there is one male born for around every eight females,” she explained. “It is possible to induce a male birth through medical means, but since most families want female heirs, it doesn't make much of an impact.”
  1499.     “And that's normal for your kind?” Jaeger asked skeptically.
  1500.      “It's perfectly natural.”
  1501.     “How does that dynamic impact your relationships? Your courtship? Surely that would mean that seven out of every eight Valbarans can't find a mate? How is that sustainable?”
  1502.     “What do you mean?” she asked, cocking her head as she looked up at him.
  1503.     “If there's only one male for every eight females, how do the other seven find mates and reproduce?”
  1504.     Her feathers puffed up in a shade of yellow. He was starting to recognize their feather patterns now, able to read them better, and he was fairly certain that yellow meant excitement or surprise.
  1505.     “Earth'nay each have one mate? Is that what you're saying?”
  1506.     “Is...that not the case for you?”
  1507.     “How decadent,” she muttered with a flutter of pink plumes. “Imagine having enough males to fill a bedchamber...”
  1508.     Coza and Ayau began to whisper to one another, no doubt sharing Maza's sentiment, flashing their feathers and snickering. Tacka seemed more embarrassed by the idea, and Xico was listening intently, probably more interested in the social dynamics than in the prospect of a harem.
  1509.     “No,” he said, struggling to explain. “One male mates with one female, that's it. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to happen, but traditionally humans are monogamous. Mono, it means we take one mate.”
  1510.     “Oh,” she said with a roll of her eyes, “I should have guessed. Earth'nay don't live in flocks, your relationships with your friends and coworkers are selective, impermanent. On Val'ba'ra, a flock of females will take a single male mate between them.”
  1511.     “Really?” Jaeger asked. This time it was his turn to be surprised. “So what, the whole flock has to decide on a match, and then they all...”
  1512.     “Without going into too much detail, yes. That male becomes part of their flock, and they will continue to reproduce with him on a permanent basis.”
  1513.     “I don't know if I should be jealous, or if I should feel sorry for the little guys,” Baker said as he nudged Jaeger with his elbow.
  1514.     “So if male Valbarans become part of the female's flock, why haven't I seen any males until now?” Jaeger continued. “Wouldn't most flocks have a male in tow?”
  1515.     “They wouldn't bring their male to work with them,” Maza laughed, “imagine how that would go!”
  1516.     “A male can't be a soldier or a laborer, there are no male pilots or male Ensi,” Coza added with a chuckle.
  1517.     “Why not?” Jaeger asked.
  1518.     “Because they're just not suited to that kind of work,” Maza explained. “They're smaller than females, weaker, more emotional. They're fragile, unsuited to any physically demanding work, really.”
  1519.     “Their place is in the home, raising young and caring for the flock,” Coza said with a flurry of agreement. “They usually take care of household chores, cooking and cleaning, things like that.”
  1520.     “So they're like...house husbands? But what about this guy here, and the secretary downstairs? Aren't they working?”
  1521.     “Yes,” Maza replied with a feather display that Jaeger had come to associate with shrugging, “but these are jobs more suited to a male. This boy, for example, is a nurse. It's a nurturing role, he assists the doctors and cares for patients. A male can make a fine nurse, a teacher, perhaps a receptionist or a waiter. Besides, letting them work alongside the females would be dangerous. We can't throw male lives away on the front lines, or let them work perilous construction jobs. In terms of numbers, females are downright expendable in comparison.”
  1522.     “They would be too weak to qualify for military service regardless,” Coza said, “they wouldn't meet the physical requirements.”
  1523.     Jaeger found it hard to conceal his shock. It seemed sexist from his perspective, downright archaic for a spacefaring species, and yet he didn't know enough about their culture to make such sweeping judgments. They might well be correct, the males certainly seemed smaller and more lightly built, which could mean that they were markedly weaker. If they were less competent and more emotional was harder to say, but he suspected that those attitudes might be more a result of the Valbaran's desire to protect their limited number of reproductive partners than anything to do with their performance. If there was indeed only one male for every eight females, then losing one to a workplace accident would be a severe blow to the gene pool.
  1524.     “What about these ones?” he asked, gesturing to the male that was leading them along the corridor. “Are their flocks working somewhere else?”
  1525.     “They're probably not joined to a flock yet,” Maza replied.
  1526.     “So they live on their own?”
  1527.     “They usually live with their family until they find a flock, or on occasion alone, yes. That's more of a modern trend, they want a little independence before they become a member of a flock.”
  1528.     “So how do Valbarans court?” Jaeger asked, “do they date like humans?”
  1529.     Maza thought for a moment, then turned her head on her flexible neck, whispering to her flock conspiratorially. They talked in hushed voices, no doubt so that their guide couldn't overhear them, then she turned back to Jaeger with a grin on her face.
  1530.     “Perhaps we can show you. After the appointment, of course. I think you'll find it very interesting.”
  1531.     They arrived at their destination, and the male led them in through another automatic door, the only thing that differentiated them was alien script that Jaeger couldn't read. Inside was a room that very much resembled a doctor's office. It was just as whitewashed as everywhere else, but here the floor was comprised of bare construction material rather than carpet, like the kitchen in Maza's domed house. There were countertops strewn with various tools and instruments that Jaeger couldn't identify, devices bolted to the walls that must be medical in nature, along with monitors that were currently displaying alien text and what could only be surgical information. There was a raised bed in the middle of the room that was covered in green material, clearly for performing examinations, and standing beside it were three female Valbarans wearing green jumpsuits like that of the male.
  1532.     The doctors greeted them with a feather display, which the flock returned, the male bowing his head and standing to the side as they entered. The doctors immediately set upon Jaeger and Baker, circling the humans as they examined them with unknown handheld instruments, chirping and warbling to one another in their native tongue.
  1533.     “Uh, Maza?” Jaeger asked as one of the women took his hand and began to count his fingers.
  1534.     “My apologies,” Maza said, “they're excited. It's the first time that they've seen an alien up close.”
  1535.     One of the doctors stepped back, her yellow headdress collapsing into its sheaths as she composed herself.
  1536.     “Forgive us, Earth'nay, but you are simply remarkable.” She flashed some kind of scanner at him, Jaeger blinking to clear his eyes as she examined the readout. “The pupils remain round even when exposed to bright lights!”
  1537.     “My name is Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said, trying to get her attention. “And this is Baker,” he added, his friend waving at her.
  1538.     “Yes, yes, you are the pair of Earth'nay who came from the alien carrier. We have been awaiting your arrival anxiously ever since Maza'xol'natuih arranged this appointment. To think that we might be some of the first physicians to examine you...”
  1539.     She aimed some kind of red laser pointer at him, then took notes on her handheld computer, tapping away with her gloved fingers. She barked something at her companions, one of whom produced a cup-shaped device that she then pressed against Baker's chest.
  1540.     “Maybe we should slow things down a little,” Maza suggested, “I think you're frightening them.”
  1541.     The doctor called her two companions away, but they kept their unblinking eyes fixed on the two humans eagerly.
  1542.     “My name is Doctor Matla'xau'tack, my flock and I are the head physicians at this facility.”
  1543.     “Just the three of you?” Baker asked.
  1544.     “Our counterparts are regrettably indisposed, we do have a hospital to run, after all. Still, the three of us should be more than sufficient to perform the examinations. Shall we begin?”
  1545.     “Hold on,” Jaeger said, raising his hands. “What examinations, exactly?”
  1546.     “Oh, nothing too invasive. We merely want to collect data on your species' physiology, and Maza'xol'natuih has informed us that a mutual exchange of medical information might be agreeable to you?”
  1547.     “Yeah, that's what we had in mind. We're as curious about you as you are about us. I've seen some...strange things while I've been here that I'd like to get my head around.”
  1548.     “Good, good. You are male, correct?”
  1549.     “Last time I checked,” Baker replied.
  1550.     “Yes, we're male,” Jaeger clarified as he gave his friend a 'stop fucking around' look.
  1551.     “What a shame that we won't be able to examine a female too. Oh well. Please take a seat on the examination table, and we can begin.”
  1552.  
  1553. ***
  1554.  
  1555.     The doctor used her laser pointer to draw their attention to one of the large monitors that were mounted on the wall, which was displaying a pair of three-dimensional renderings side by side, X-rays of human and Valbaran skeletons that slowly rotated. Everyone crowded around, Baker still sat on the examination table as they watched in fascination.
  1556.     “Here we can see the most obvious differences,” the doctor began, “in the skeletal structure and the respiratory system.”
  1557.     She traced the line of the Valbaran spine with her pointer, dark cavities standing out against the lighter bone. It looked like the skeleton had holes running through it.
  1558.     “In Val'ba'ra'nay, we can see that the respiratory system extends deeper into the body, with anterior, posterior, and thoracic air sacks. There are air pockets along the vertebrae, as well as inside the femur and the humerus, that expand along with the lungs to fill with oxygen. This makes the skeleton lighter, thus reducing the energy required to move it, and also provides a larger store of oxygen that can be expended more rapidly. We inhale and exhale through pressure changes, the expansion and contraction of muscles in the sternum either drawing in or pushing out air. Val'ba'ra'nay physiology is very fuel efficient.”
  1559.     She turned her pointer towards the human skeleton now, the red dot sliding down the spine.
  1560.     “In the Earth'nay, on the other hand, we see no such air pockets. The bones are heavy and solid, and the respiratory system consists of a simple pair of lungs. Here we see what is called a 'diaphragm', a sheet of muscle and fibrous tissue that extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity. When this structure contracts, it creates a partial vacuum inside the thorax, causing the lungs to expand and take in air. It's far less efficient than the Val'ba'ra'nay method, but there are advantages associated with this system, stronger bones being one of them. Although it could be argued that lighter bones present different advantages, it's a hard comparison to make, as the two species have evolved to fill very different ecological niches. This brings us to the next major difference,” she said as she swung her pointer down towards the legs.
  1561.     The view zoomed in on the muscles, cross-sections expanding to fill the monitor.
  1562.     “As you may know, there are several types of muscle. Skeletal, cardiac, voluntary, and involuntary, for example. The primary kinds of muscle fibers responsible for moving the skeleton can be divided into two categories, what we call fast-twitch and slow-twitch. The former provides rapid, powerful contractions, while the latter provides slower contractions with greater endurance.”
  1563.     She moved her laser to the Valbaran X-ray, pointing at the muscle fibers.
  1564.     “Save for the cardiac and respiratory muscles, almost all of the muscle fibers that we see in Val'ba'ra'nay skeletal muscles are fast-twitch. They can produce proportionally impressive speed and force, but only in short bursts, the subject tiring very quickly and needing to recuperate before activity can resume. Meanwhile, the muscle fibers in Earth'nay are far more evenly distributed, with a focus on extreme endurance. Based on the factors that we've just outlined, we can conclude that a healthy Earth'nay could potentially run, or indeed perform other strenuous activities, for dramatically longer than even the fittest Val'ba'ra'nay. The differences don't stop there.”
  1565.     Well, there was the explanation as to how Maza could move so fast, and why she had so little stamina. Her whole body was designed to provide short, brutal bursts of power and speed, which had no doubt been advantageous during their time as ambush hunters. A Valbaran would have burst out from the undergrowth and attacked with such speed and ferocity that the prey wouldn't even have been able to react before it was dead. There was no need for endurance if the target could be dispatched quickly enough, and if one of them failed, the rest of the flock would get the job done.
  1566.     “Something that is far harder to demonstrate are the neurological differences,” she said as the image changed to what looked like CAT scans of the two respective subjects. “It might not be apparent to a layman, but there are subtle differences in the way that the neural pathways are formed. I have prepared a simple experiment that I believe should give you a better understanding.”
  1567.     She lowered her pointer and pulled out her tablet computer, tapping at the touch screen before handing it to Jaeger. On the screen were a series of shapes, perhaps twenty of them in a row. Triangles, squares, circles, and hexagons. A dozen different icons all laid out in a sequence. It was just like the logic puzzles that Evans had used to test the Valbarans when they had first boarded the Rorke.
  1568.     “Please pay attention to the sequence,” the doctor said. After a moment, she took the tablet from him and passed it to Maza, who examined the shapes intently for a few seconds before handing it back. “Now,” the doctor continued, “describe the sequence of shapes.”
  1569.     “From memory?” Jaeger asked, perplexed.
  1570.     “Yes, from memory.”
  1571.     “I can't,” he admitted with a shrug, “I could maybe tell you the first four or five, but I'd need to study it for a lot longer than that to remember the entire sequence.”
  1572.     “Can you tell me how many individual shapes the sequence was comprised of?”
  1573.     “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not with any certainty.”
  1574.     The doctor gestured to Maza, who promptly recited the entire sequence by memory, and then listed the number of individual shapes. The two humans stared at her, their eyes wide. Evans had said that the aliens possessed an accelerated capacity for learning, but it hadn't dawned on him until now just how different their capabilities were. They had looked at the same picture for the same amount of time, and Maza had been able to recall it like she had taken a photograph, while Jaeger had scarcely been able to remember the beginning of the sequence.
  1575.     “We can see in these scans,” the doctor continued, “that the neural pathways in Earth'nay are both weaker and take longer to form. This results in an overall weaker and less efficient memory. The same logic applies to non-declarative memories, which impact motor skills. When a Val'ba'ra'nay learns, the neural pathways cement themselves very quickly, which means that 'muscle memory' actions can be performed with extreme speed and precision. The Earth'nay seem to entirely lack 'stacking' behavior, whereby sequences of learned actions can be executed one after another. Let's take martial arts as an example, where stances and moves are learned by rote, repeated over and over again until it becomes second nature and the individual in question no longer has to think about what they're doing. They merely react, bypassing the conscious mind almost entirely. The individual sees a kick coming their way, non-declarative memory is accessed to find the appropriate reaction, and that action is then executed with very little delay. This phenomenon exists in Earth'nay, but it is massively reduced, almost entirely absent in comparison to what we're familiar with.”
  1576.     “So that's how you were able to fight so quickly when we sparred,” Jaeger said, turning to Maza. “You weren't thinking, it was like your body was running on auto-pilot.”
  1577.     “Combined with our great speed and strength, the advantages are obvious,” the doctor continued. “However, there is one significant detriment, one that does not exist in Earth'nay. Maza, what would you do if you found yourself in an entirely unforeseen situation? One which you had no prior knowledge of, and no plan for?”
  1578.     “I would stop what I was doing and consult with my flock to formulate a new plan,” she said, as if it was an obvious answer.
  1579.     “See, here is where the disadvantage lies. In the time that it would take you to assess the situation and come up with an appropriate response, an Earth'nay would have already adapted and changed its strategy.”
  1580.     “How do you mean?” she asked, flashing her feathers in confusion.
  1581.     “Because they don't plan extensively, and they don't rely on non-declarative memory in the way that Val'ba'ra'nay do, they have developed an incredible ability to adapt to a changing environment. The plasticity of their neural pathways is incredible. Where evolution has robbed them of one attribute, it has substituted another. Where a Val'ba'ra'nay must plan extensively in advance, drawing from practice and experience to tackle a problem, an Earth'nay can think entirely on the fly. They don't need to waste precious time formulating a new plan. I can only describe it as a kind of emergent thought pattern.”
  1582.     Now it was the flock's turn to stare at the two humans in awe, their violet eyes wide and their plumes puffed up in shades of yellow. Jaeger was having a hard time wrapping his head around the concept. So the aliens performed tasks, and even thought, like a computer program going through a sequence of commands? That explained the odd pauses during conversation. What was that like? What was their experience of the world, where an unexpected event or situation could completely throw them off to the point that they practically had to retreat in order to collect themselves? Was that why it had taken them so long to make contact out in the asteroid field?
  1583.     Perhaps the answer once again lay in their evolutionary history. Humans had lived through ice ages and the extinction of innumerable species, they had spread across the world and faced all manner of diverse climates and dangers. It was through adaptation that they had endured, the ability to change along with their surroundings.
  1584.     What if instead of being adaptable, the Valbarans had evolved to be absurdly efficient at their chosen tasks? It was certainly possible, rising to dominance simply by being the most brutally efficient and perfectly sculpted predators for their given environment, developing society and eventually civilization through a cooperation that transcended simple pack behavior. They were like savants in a way, inhumanly proficient in their specific fields of interest, but inflexible and inhibited outside of them.
  1585.     “Y'all are gonna have to help me get this straight,” Baker said, addressing his question to Maza and her flock. “How much plannin' do y'all do, exactly?”
  1586.     “Everything is planned,” Xico replied. “We formulated a plan for what we were going to do this afternoon, for example, we reached consensus before we left the house. We knew whether we would be walking or taking scooters, we knew precisely which mag-lev stations to travel to, and where they were located. We knew what the weather would be like, and what clothing would be appropriate to wear. We had planned for potential encounters with crowds of strangers, we had discussed what questions might be asked, and how we might escort you safely to the hospital. We had several contingencies prepared in case our appointment with the head physicians was delayed due to some kind of large scale accident or emergency.”
  1587.     “So you live your entire lives on a predetermined itinerary?” Jaeger asked in disbelief. “How would you possibly have the time to plan all of that?”
  1588.     “Our language is a lot faster than yours,” Maza said, “we can convey information much more quickly.”
  1589.     “The speech center of the brain is also more developed,” one of the doctors added, “which means that more information can be processed.”
  1590.     “Well this is some information that we can bring back to Fielding,” Jaeger said. “Can we...transfer the data? Have they finished writing software that can interface Valbaran and UNN technology yet?”
  1591.     “I can do you one better,” Baker said, waving his phone at Jaeger. “Recorded the whole presentation.”
  1592.     “That's...surprisingly clever of you, Baker.”
  1593.     “If I learned one thing at Texas A&M, it was how to take notes durin' a lecture without havin' to do any writing.”
  1594.     “We will continue to study the data that we collected,” Doctor Matla said, “these are only the preliminary findings. We will keep you updated as much as we are able. I suspect that it will become easier to share information once your engineers are able to finish work on the software that you mentioned. Thank you for your assistance, Earth'nay. Nurse, please see our guests to the elevator.”
  1595.     That was their cue to leave, Baker hopping down from his seat on the examination table as the rest of the party made for the door, following behind the male Valbaran. He led them out into the carpeted corridor again, Jaeger only just remembering to duck beneath the door frame in time to avoid hitting his head.
  1596.     As they walked down the corridor, Maza tapped him on the arm, gesturing for him to lean down so that she could whisper to him.
  1597.     “You wanted to see Val'ba'ra'nay courtship? Watch this...”
  1598.     She whistled, and then her flock rushed forwards, surrounding the hapless male like wolves about to bring down a deer. He was frightened at first, his feathers flashing blue and yellow, his eyes snapping between the five females. The two humans watched in fascination as the ritual began.
  1599.     Coza stepped out of the circle, the male turning to face her. He seemed at once worried and flattered, his body language submissive as he looked down at the carpet and fluttered his ornate plumes in shades of pink and purple. The flock moved as one, closing ranks behind her, swaying gently to the left and right as though they were building up to a dance number.
  1600.     Coza suddenly flashed her plumes, the feathers standing up on her head and forearms, the suitor pressing her arms together horizontally in front of her to create a symmetrical display. Rather than just one or two colors, the layered feathers cycled, creating a hypnotic wave pattern as they shifted and moved to reveal the hues beneath them. The females standing behind her did the same, opening their feather sheaths and angling the plumes so that their friend was framed by them, creating an explosion of cycling colors from the male's perspective. His eyes snapped to the lead female, captivated, her slow swaying seeming to hypnotize him like a cobra being charmed by a pipe player. He cocked his head, his own massive headdress extending, fluttering as it replicated the color pattern.
  1601.     It was so elaborate and complex, like watching a pair of tropical birds engaged in a mating display, Jaeger couldn't pull his eyes away from it. The swaying grew faster, as did the rhythmic fluttering of the multicolored feathers, the rest of the flock following the lead like backup dancers. They rolled their hips in perfect synchronization, shaking their arms and heads to make the feathers vibrate, the sound that they produced was almost like that of a rattlesnake.
  1602.     The male began to shake his head too, the large, peacock-like feathers with their circular tips blurring into an iridescent haze. It looked to Jaeger like he was having a colorful seizure. The pattern that it created seemed to float in the air, the thinner stalks that linked the main body of the plume to the ornate tips rendered nearly invisible by the rapid motion.
  1603.     “We're gonna make a fortune exportin' glow sticks and rave music,” Baker whispered.
  1604.     The ritual ended as suddenly as it had begun, their feathers folding back down into their protective sheaths, and the flock breaking their tight formation. The male fished for something in his pocket, then withdrew a handheld computer, tapping at the touch screen. Coza did the same, the two warbling and chirping for a moment. When they were done, they stowed their computers and set off again, Maza waving for the humans to join them. The male was walking nearer to Coza, his plumes flashing in shades of pink as they chattered to one another.
  1605.     “What the hell was that?” Jaeger asked, Maza laughing at his question.
  1606.     “Coza'ma'lotl put on a display for the male, and he reciprocated. It means that he likes her, and wants to see her again.”
  1607.     “And the thing with the phones?”
  1608.     “He gave her his communicator address so that they can stay in contact.”
  1609.     “She got his number,” Baker clarified, clearly amused by the whole affair.
  1610.     “That was certainly...elaborate,” Jaeger said, “does all Valbaran courtship go that way?”
  1611.     “If the male doesn't like the look of the female or her flock, then he doesn't respond with his own dance. But besides that, yes, that's how we court. Is it different for Earth'nay?”
  1612.     “Humans usually court entirely through verbal means, maybe with a little body language involved for the more perceptive. If we like someone, we usually ask them on a date, we take them somewhere fun like a restaurant and get to know them better. If everything goes well, then they might date a couple more times before starting a relationship.”
  1613.     “Oh, Coza'ma'lotl and the nurse aren't in a relationship yet,” she clarified. “They will 'date' too, the next step is to spend some time with the flock and see if everyone gets along. After that, a more formal relationship can begin.”
  1614.     “I feel a little bad for him,” Jaeger said as he watched the male bob along beside Coza. “I hope you aren't leading him on just to show me what Valbaran courtship looks like.”
  1615.     Maza shrugged her feathers.
  1616.     “Not really. He's pretty cute, and we're not in a relationship with any males right now. Maybe it will go somewhere, and maybe it won't.”
  1617.     “So what makes him cute?” Jaeger asked, “what qualities do you look for in a male?”
  1618.     “Let's see,” she said, lowering her voice so that the nurse couldn't overhear her. “Clean, shiny scales are a must, buffed or polished is even better. Nice, big feathers, properly groomed. A short snout, having a long snout and a large jaw is considered a very feminine trait. Bright eyes, a nice figure, things like that.”
  1619.     “So...do we look masculine to you?” Baker asked. “Humans have, like...no snout at all.”
  1620.     “I guess it does make you Earth'nay look kind of...nubile,” she said as she cocked her head and peered up at them. She hurried ahead, walking beside her friends as they chatted with the nurse, Jaeger giving Baker a confused glance.
  1621.     “Did you teach her that word?”
  1622.     “Don't look at me,” he replied with a shrug.
  1623.  
  1624. CHAPTER 12: VANGUARD
  1625.    
  1626.     They arrived back at the flock's domed dwelling, the two humans ducking under the low doorway as they stepped through into the carpeted living area. The planet's star was getting low in the sky, its pale glow dimming as it dipped below the horizon.
  1627.     “So where are me and Baker sleeping?” Jaeger asked, eyeing the bedroom warily. He didn't know how he felt about sharing it with the whole flock, but they didn't exactly have a fold-out couch, where else were they going to sleep?
  1628.     “Is there a reason you can't sleep with us?” Maza asked, “cultural maybe? We just assumed that it would be alright.”
  1629.     “No, nothing like that,” Jaeger replied. “There's an attitude in human culture that if a male and a female share a bed, it implies that they...it's silly anyway, we can sleep together.”
  1630.     “As long as y'all don't sleep in a pile like Borealans,” Baker added, “give us enough space and it'll be peachy.”
  1631.     “I see,” Maza said. “That will work. We'll take one side of the room, and leave the other for the Earth'nay. There's plenty of space to go around, and we'll all wear night clothing to preserve our modesty.”
  1632.     “Pajamas?” Jaeger suggested.
  1633.     “Is that the correct term? Pajamas, then. We should eat first, however. Can we offer you anything?”
  1634.     “Want more bug bars, Baker?” Jaeger asked. He laughed as his friend stuck out his tongue and pulled a disgusted face.
  1635.     “No thanks, I'm good. We brought MREs.”
  1636.     “We'll just need some water,” Jaeger added.
  1637.     “We will prepare food for ourselves then,” Maza said, directing her flock to the kitchen. “In Val'ba'ra'nay culture, it is customary for everyone to eat meals around the same table, it would be nice if you joined us.”
  1638.     “Sure,” Jaeger said, “we have similar customs.”
  1639.     “My family used to eat TV dinners on the couch,” Baker said with a sigh, “even at Thanksgiving.”
  1640.     “Alright Baker, keep your unresolved family issues to yourself and let's get some grub.”
  1641.     They had set their laden rucksacks on the round table earlier in the day, and they rummaged inside for their MREs, withdrawing the Navy-blue colored packets. They leaned the rucksacks against the nearest wall to get them out of the way, the two humans perching on the small chairs and leaning down to reach the surface as they opened the packets.
  1642.     Tacka returned with a jug of water, placing it on the table before scurrying away to the safety of the domed kitchen. She was still so timid around them.
  1643.     “What did you get?” Baker asked, spreading the various packaged food items out and examining them.
  1644.     “I got...ravioli in tomato sauce, chicken pate and crackers, and...oh sweet, I got some pop tarts. How about you?” Jaeger opened one of the transparent ziplock bags and fished for his plastic cutlery, setting them down on the table along with some napkins and the salt and pepper sachets.
  1645.     “I got beans and pork, blackcurrant jam with some biscuits, and a chocolate chip muffin. Fuck, they gave me a raspberry flavored drink, what's yours?”
  1646.     “Orange.”
  1647.     “Trade me?”
  1648.     “Yeah, alright,” Jaeger said as he passed Baker the packet of flavored powder. There was also instant coffee, some gum and chewy candies, and a dried fruit bar. Pretty standard affair for MREs. It wasn't exactly gourmet food, but there was no spice like hunger.
  1649.     They placed the main courses inside the flameless heaters that they came with, then added water, steam quickly shooting from the packets as they did their work. They poured water into the packets of flavored powder, placing a straw inside them like giant juice boxes, the pair starting on the biscuits and crackers as they waited for their meals to cook. They had purification tablets, but if the Valbarans could drink the water, then they probably could too.
  1650.     Within about fifteen minutes, the Valbarans returned from the kitchen, each of them carrying a large ceramic dish. They set them down towards the center of the table, pulling up chairs as they took seats around it. The dishes were varied, there was some kind of meat in a brown-colored sauce, an assorted bowl of grains and what might be root vegetables of some kind, along with other pastes and food items that Jaeger couldn't begin to identify.
  1651.     They were just in time for the flameless ration heaters to have finished their work, and so the group ate together, the aliens eating directly from the communal bowls with implements that resembled two-pronged forks and ladle-like spoons. They passed the dishes between them, so organized and in tune with one another's needs that they scarcely had to ask. Every aspect of their life was shared, they even ate from the same plates. Jaeger tried to imagine a similar scenario occurring in his childhood home, his siblings sharing the meal equally between themselves with no fighting or complaining, which seemed like an impossibility.
  1652.     “What do you have?” Maza asked, craning her flexible neck to get a look at their dishes.
  1653.     “This is ravioli in a vegetable sauce,” Jaeger explained, showing her his open container as steam rose from the plastic bag. “It comes from Italy, a region of Earth. It's beef, meat from Earth livestock, sandwiched between two pieces of dough which are made from grain.”
  1654.     “What's that white powder that you put on it?” Xico asked.
  1655.     “Salt, a seasoning that enhances the flavor. I'd offer you a taste, but I'm not sure if Valbarans can digest all of the components.”
  1656.     “Yeah, it's probably safer not to share it,” Baker added.
  1657.     “You can probably eat this though,” Jaeger said as he brandished the small, plastic bag of gummy candies. “It's mostly just animal gelatin and sugar. You guys have sugar, right? I remember seeing it in the analysis of the insect bar that you gave to Baker.”
  1658.     “Yes, that should be edible for us,” Maza replied as she eyed the brightly colored sweets.
  1659.     He broke open the packet and placed a gummy candy in front of each Valbaran.
  1660.     “They're chewy,” he explained as they examined them, Ayau sniffing the alien treat while Xico licked it experimentally. Baker laughed as they popped them into their mouths and began to chew on them. It was like giving a dog peanut butter, the aliens smacking and licking as the candies stuck to the roof of their mouth and between their teeth.
  1661.     To his surprise, Tacka especially seemed to like the taste, eyeing the rest of the packet from across the table. Jaeger wanted to see if she would overcome her apparent wariness of him for another snack, holding the ziplock bag just out of reach of her little arms, accounting for the extra reach that her feather sheaths afforded her. He gestured for her to come to him, watching as the alien slowly slid off her chair and bobbed around the side of the table. Coza nudged Ayau, who was sitting beside her, the two smirking as Tacka inched closer to the human.
  1662.     It was like feeding a wild raccoon, Jaeger holding out the packet so that she had to reach out to take it from him, the alien snatching it and scurrying back to her seat with her prize clutched protectively against her chest. She shared the spoils with her sisters, but they let her eat the majority of the gummy candies herself. It was the happiest and most relaxed that Jaeger had seen her so far, and he started on his pop tarts as he watched her chew intently.
  1663.     There wasn't a lot of room for conversation, the aliens seemed fixated on their meal. When they were finished, they cleared the table quickly. Jaeger asked if there was anywhere that he and Baker could dispose of their empty food packets, and Maza showed them into the kitchen where there was what looked like a tall, cylindrical garbage can. She opened the transparent lid and dropped the empty wrappers inside, Jaeger leaning over to see that the cylinder was full of what looked like rotary blades, almost like a jet engine. She closed the lid, hit a switch, and then the blades inside churned the garbage into fine dust like a giant blender. It then vacuumed the leavings away, apparently into the floor.
  1664.     “It's some kind of giant garbage disposal chute,” Baker marveled, looking at Jaeger with an excited expression on his face. “Let's find more stuff to put in it!”
  1665.     Jaeger was about to warn Baker that it wasn't a toy and that he was an adult, but Maza passed him some kind of discarded plastic container, which he gleefully dropped into the chute. He hit the switch, watching as the spinning blades pulverized it, stopping just short of clapping his hands as the powder vanished down the chute.
  1666.     “Where does it go?” Jaeger asked.
  1667.     “To the waste processing plant,” Maza replied. “We dispose of all of our refuse this way, both organic and synthetic.”
  1668.     No doubt the Valbarans used some kind of advanced recycling process in keeping with their staunch environmentalism.
  1669.     “Are you ready to sleep?” Maza asked, Jaeger nodding in reply. “Good, we will change into our 'pajamas', please do the same.”
  1670.     The flock moved off to the bedroom, closing the door behind them to protect their privacy. The two humans shared a glance, then shrugged, beginning to strip off their uniforms. They didn't have pajamas, but a shirt and briefs should do the job just as well.
  1671.     After a minute or two, the door opened, Maza leaning out to beckon to them. She was wearing another floaty garment made of gossamer fabric. It wasn’t unlike the tunics that she favored, but a little longer, kind of like a nightie. It wasn't lingerie, it was a simple grey in color, and it wasn't adorned with any lace or patterns, nor was it especially revealing. Jaeger and Baker made their way over to the bedroom, ducking through the low doorway. It was gloomy inside, there was just enough light to see by, tinted red so that it bathed everything in a crimson glow. The floor-spanning mattress was soft and spongy beneath their feet, and the hanging curtains gave it an almost Arabian vibe.
  1672.     The flock was bunched up to the left side of the room, scattered in a fairly random pattern, resting their heads on tube-shaped pillows. They were close together, but not exactly in a pile, reminding Jaeger of a slumber party. They wore similar clothes to Maza, the only variation being the color.
  1673.     The humans moved over to the right, lying down gingerly and stacking various cushions and pillows to support their heads as they struggled to get comfortable. It wasn't the worst place that they Jaeger had slept, it could be quite pleasant once he got used to it.
  1674.     There was plenty of space, and so the concerns of being forced to sleep in a dogpile with the aliens were soon forgotten, the humans drifting off to sleep without too much difficulty after their long and exciting day.
  1675.    
  1676. ***
  1677.    
  1678.     Jaeger was snapped out of a dream by a beeping alarm, struggling to his feet and stumbling on the squashy mattress as he made his way to the door, fumbling with the little handle.
  1679.     “I'm up, I'm up,” he heard Baker mumble groggily. “What's...what's going on?”
  1680.     The aliens too were stirring, blinking their eyes and flexing their feathers as they looked about the bedroom. Coza scowled at him, apparently not thrilled about being woken up. Jaeger succeeded in making it into the living room, retrieving his phone from the pocket of his uniform, which was draped over the table. Baker's was ringing too, it must be a communication from fleet command. He swiped on the screen and held the device to his ear, shielding his eyes against the early morning light that was pouring in through the round windows.
  1681.     “Lieutenant Jaeger reporting.”
  1682.     “Lieutenant Jaeger, this is fleetcom. You are to report to the Yilgarn spaceport for briefing immediately.”
  1683.     “Yes Ma'am, has something happened?”
  1684.     “Colonel Roberts will brief you on the details.”
  1685.     “Yes Ma'am, I'll relay the message to Baker, we're on our way.” He ended the call, turning to shout to his friend. “Get your ass out of bed Baker, we have to get to the spaceport ASAP. Something's going down.”
  1686.     “I'm coming, I'm coming,” he complained as he stumbled out of the bedroom and checked his phone. Maza followed behind him, some of her companions poking their heads out of the doorway.
  1687.     “Jaeger? What's happening?”
  1688.     “We just received orders to go to the spaceport for briefing,” he explained, “can you get us there?”
  1689.     “Of course,” she replied, “give us a few minutes to get dressed first.”
  1690.     There was another alarm sound, high-pitched and trilling, this one coming from one of the Valbaran tablet computers. Maza hurried over to it and picked it up, holding it up to her face as she spoke into it in her native language. After a moment she turned to Jaeger, a concerned flutter of purple spreading through her headdress.
  1691.     “We've been ordered to the spaceport too. It must be something serious.”
  1692.     “Alright, let's get our gear,” Jaeger said as he began to pull on his uniform.
  1693.  
  1694. ***
  1695.    
  1696.     When they emerged from the patch of woodland beside the airfield, they noticed that there were several Valbaran landers lined up on the runway, their engines idling. A pair of Valbaran guards dressed in green camouflage and wielding laser rifles directed them towards the hangar where the UNN vessels were parked. When they entered through the massive doors, they saw that several Valbaran flocks, and what looked like all of the UNN combat personnel who had been deployed to Yilgarn were standing around in loose groups. Colonel Roberts was at the front of the pack, as sharply dressed as ever, his hands clasped tightly behind his back as he waited for everyone to arrive. It seemed that Jaeger and Baker were the last, and so he called for everyone's attention, the crowd turning to face him as the newcomers joined their ranks.
  1697.     “Two hours ago, an unidentified object entered Valbara's atmosphere,” Roberts began. “It appeared to be under some measure of intelligent control, as it approached the planet at a velocity and angle that was conducive to surviving reentry. Judging by its trajectory, it slingshotted around the sun and used the inner gas giant to decelerate. The likely point of origin is the very edge of the solar system, inside the Oort cloud. It's undoubtedly of Bug origin.”
  1698.     A concerned murmur passed through the crowd. Everyone had known that a Bug invasion was imminent, but they had hoped to have more time to prepare. Xico and Tacka shared a worried glance, while Coza crossed her arms, her brow furrowing.
  1699.     “It was a very small object, and as such, it barely registered on our instruments. It might have been dismissed as innocuous space debris, had it not landed just a few miles outside of Yilgarn's walls. Two dozen more of these objects soon followed, which confirmed our fears, each of them landing in close proximity to a Valbaran population center. Our experts believe that these might be some kind of long-range probes and that the Bugs are testing our defenses. Due to their small size, they can't be investigated from orbit, and so we're going to be organizing you into several groups in order to travel to the impact sites and determine the exact nature of these objects. Because UNN personnel have more experience in dealing with Betelgeusians than their Valbaran counterparts, we'll be sending a couple of humans with each team. Your orders are to locate the objects, document what you find, and recover them if possible. If you deem recovery to be too dangerous or otherwise impractical, you are to destroy them.”
  1700.     He pulled out a tablet computer and began to list off names, the humans joining groups of Valbarans who then collected their equipment and weapons, finally making their way over to one of the idling landers.
  1701.     Jaeger's name came up, followed by Baker's, and they were assigned to a flock of Valbarans wearing the green and purple camouflage that denoted them as military. It made Jaeger wonder how the chain of command worked. Was the whole flock of equal rank, and were their subordinates expected to take orders from all of them at once?
  1702.     Maza's flock joined them too. Apparently, the higher-ups didn't see any point in separating them. They were clad in their usual form-fitting jumpsuits, blue and grey instead of green and purple. The UNN personnel began to pass out XMRs, along with the black body armor that was commonly worn by Marines. The aliens took the rifles, but they had their own variety of armor. Jaeger was shocked to see that the Valbaran soldiers were already proficient enough with the railguns to be trusted with them in the field, no doubt another product of their accelerated learning. They were a little larger than was convenient in the hands of the aliens, but they were strong for their size, and they had no trouble lifting them. Maza and her flock were given the blocky laser rifles of Valbaran design, they had been with Jaeger and Baker since they had landed on the planet, and so they hadn't had time to practice with the UNN tech.
  1703.     “Are we expecting to get into a firefight?” Baker asked, pulling on a black chest piece over his uniform and fiddling with the straps.
  1704.     “You never know with Bugs,” Jaeger replied, affixing his helmet and switching on his HUD. It fizzled to life inside his visor, displaying a green overlay, and he began to tune the radio to local frequencies. “They say it's a probe, but for all we know, it might start spontaneously spitting acid or lobbing plasma grenades.”
  1705.     He checked his weapon, syncing the scope with his helmet and making sure that the battery was charged.
  1706.     “Alright, here are our orders,” one of the green-clad Valbarans began. “Our team is charged with investigating the object that fell outside Yilgarn. It's a short distance beyond the East wall. We will leave through the East gate and make our way towards the target on foot, where we will establish if the object poses an immediate threat, and then respond accordingly.”
  1707.     “The East wall?” Maza asked, concern creeping into her voice. “That's Teth'rak territory.”
  1708.     “We're aware of that,” the soldier replied, “which is why we'll be treading carefully. We'll have a spotter in the lookout tower keeping watch for the Teth'rak.”
  1709.     “Can't we just take one of the dropships and land directly at the target site?” Baker suggested.
  1710.     “No, the Teth'rak will attack it,” Maza replied.
  1711.     “What? It would attack a dropship?” he scoffed. “They're designed to withstand reentry and AA fire, there's no way an animal could bring one down.”
  1712.     “It doesn't matter if she can bring it down or not, what matters is that she will try. A Teth'rak will attack anything that enters its territory. She would spot a big, loud spaceship from miles away and she would see it as an invading enemy. If she attacks the dropship, then we would be compelled to defend ourselves, which we need to avoid at all costs. The Teth'rak sustaining any injuries is unacceptable.”
  1713.     “So we can't fire on that giant thing if it attacks us?” Baker asked.
  1714.     “Absolutely not,” Maza replied, “under no circumstances are you to fire on the Teth'rak.”
  1715.     “Even if it's about to eat me?”
  1716.     “Even then,” she said with a red flurry of feathers. “We are intruding on her territory, we must be respectful.”
  1717.     “I guess it's like shooting a white rhino or something,” Jaeger suggested with a shrug. “I'm not sure an XMR could bring that thing down anyway, not unless you hit the brain or the heart. You'd probably just piss it off even more.”
  1718.     “That's why we have this,” one of the Valbaran soldiers said, brandishing a weapon that looked very much like a forty-millimeter grenade launcher.
  1719.     “And what's that?” Baker asked.
  1720.     The soldier plucked a metallic ball from her belt, showing it to him.
  1721.     “Pheromone grenades. If there's one thing that the Teth'rak hates more than anything else, it's the scent of urine from other females of its species. The launcher will fire the grenade a good distance away from the user, where it will start to mimic the smell of Teth'rak scent marking. The attacking animal should then divert its attention away from us in order to defend its claim...probably.”
  1722.     “So all we have to save us from the giant dinosaur is stink bombs? Got it,” Baker complained.
  1723.    
  1724. ***
  1725.    
  1726.     The giant wall began to split open, Jaeger watching as the two doors parted to reveal the countryside beyond. It was like a fortress. If the wall was two hundred feet tall, then the doors must have been fifty feet at least, opening wide enough that you could have driven five or six trucks through the opening side by side. He wouldn't have even known that the gate was here, it was seamless, sliding into the wall to either side of it much like the gravity plate in the floor of the lookout tower had.
  1727.     “Stay close,” one of the soldiers said, “roll up your sleeves and don't make use of your color panels. The light might attract the Teth'rak if it comes into visual range.” She raised her arm, extending the plumes in a deep shade of red. “For the benefit of the Earth'nay, red means stop.”
  1728.     The Valbarans rolled up their sleeves as instructed, flexing their sheaths like a human might roll his shoulders or stretch his arms. Jaeger was as excited as he was apprehensive. For the duration of his stay in Yilgarn so far, he had been confined within its walls, the only nature around him carefully sculpted and tended by the Valbarans. Now they were about to venture out into the wilderness, intentionally left to grow wild by the planet's inhabitants.
  1729.     The soldier waved them forward, and they began to march, their pace scarcely a brisk walk by human standards so as not to exhaust them too quickly. The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the heat and humidity, it was even more apparent on the outside. Were the city walls able to influence the climate within in some way?
  1730.     Before them was a plain of blue-green grass, the ankle-length blades waving gently in the wind, making it look almost like an ocean. The fields and rolling hills extended far into the distance, punctuated here and there by large pockets of forest and patches of scrub like islands. The terrain wasn't entirely flat, but it was flat enough that Jaeger could see straight to the horizon. Water was ever present, the lakes and rivers reflecting the light of the sun with a silver glow. Beyond the atmospheric haze, blue mountains rose into the azure sky, wisps of cloud smeared across it like the strokes of a paintbrush. It was an alien Serengeti, like the Valbarans had dropped their city into the middle of a savanna.
  1731.     He looked back over his shoulder as they walked forwards, the white wall rising into the air behind him, almost devoid of any detail. The gate was already closing, locking them beyond the safety of the city. What Jaeger wouldn't have given for an APC right about now, but even the most rudimentary vehicle would draw the monster, according to the Valbarans. They had to rely on being small and quiet, no doubt the same way that the aliens had survived their prehistory. They had to be sneaky and fast to escape anything that was bigger than they were.
  1732.     “I'm already regretting putting this armor on,” Baker muttered as he walked beside him. “Whose bright idea was it to make these plates black? I feel like I'm going to melt out here.”
  1733.     Jaeger too was beginning to sweat profusely. The system's star was beating down on them, baking the ceramic plates that they were wearing, he couldn't wait to get to the cover of the trees ahead. They were the same variety that he had seen inside the city, thick, fat trunks with leaves like palm fronds. As they neared the shade, he noticed that there were many other varieties of plants here too, growing wild and untended by the careful hands of the Valbarans.
  1734.     There was a thick blanket of ferns, their colorful leaves a blend of greens and pinks, along with what looked like miniature trees with trunks that reminded him of pine cones. Splashes of red and yellow from flowering plants broke up the uniformity, and in an instant, they transitioned from open plains to what felt like a tropical jungle. It was even more humid inside, as if the plants were trapping the moisture in the air, the canopy above them blocking the sunlight and preventing the water from evaporating. The trees were so densely packed that Jaeger could no longer see beyond them after walking only twenty feet or so, it was like being teleported to a different planet entirely.
  1735.     “Uh...do we need to watch out for snakes or anything like that?” Baker asked, the ferns rustling as he trudged through them.
  1736.     “What's a snake?” Maza asked as she walked beside him. Inside the forest, the purple and green camouflage worked remarkably well, and even the various shades of green and beige that colored the alien's scales helped them to blend into the background. What was it that they had said about the Teth'rak, that it could see prey at a distance of about six miles? It must have eyes like a hawk, and maybe other predators that inhabited these regions did too. Even Maza and her flock were harder to spot with their ocean camo.
  1737.     “It's like a long, poisonous reptile with no legs,” Baker said as he lifted his foot over a protruding root.
  1738.     “Venomous,” Jaeger corrected. “Venomous animals kill you with a bite or a sting, and poisonous animals kill you if you eat them.”
  1739.     “I'm not sure,” Maza replied, the brush high enough that only her head and shoulders were peeking out. “We have some venomous reptiles and insects, but I don't know how an Earth'nay might react to the toxins.”
  1740.     “Well this day just keeps getting better,” Baker grumbled.
  1741.      The Valbarans all seemed to have spread out to cover more ground, Jaeger could scarcely see most of them. Only the occasional flutter of color from their crests gave them away, the aliens communicating silently using their feathers. He had expected it to be very revealing, and yet the plants around them were colorful enough that it didn't jump out like he had expected. For every flurry of yellow, there was a patch of yellow flowers to mask it. For every shade of pink and purple, there was a cycad with leaves in the same hues, blues and greens were of course abundant.
  1742.     There was bird song everywhere, loud enough to be annoying, and for the first time, Jaeger was able to get a glimpse of one of the creatures. Something feathery flitted between the branches of a nearby tree, colorful like a tropical parrot, its little head twitching as it eyed the intruders from its perch.
  1743.     A bird this was not, it looked more like an extinct missing link between birds and reptiles. It was shaped like a lizard with a long, flexible tail and dinosaur-like legs, its wings tipped with grasping claws and its snout missing a beak. It opened its mouth to reveal rows of tiny, needle-like teeth as it puffed up the plumes around its neck, chirping a song at them before fluttering away to another branch.
  1744.     “Watch out for those,” Coza said as she gestured to the bird-lizard, “it might swoop down at you if it's nesting nearby.”
  1745.     “I'm surprised you can even see anything at all in here,” Baker said, “it's just a mess of color to me. I feel like I can't see five feet in front of my face.”
  1746.     “Oh?” she asked, cocking her head. “Perhaps Earth'nay eyes aren't suited to this environment.” It seemed more like a jab than an observation, Jaeger watching the camouflaged Valbaran slink away into the ferns like a ghost, her blocky rifle at the ready.
  1747.     They continued on, Jaeger keeping one eye on the treetops. There were so many different kinds of plants that it became hard to keep track, and everything was so tightly packed together, like someone had taken five different botanical gardens and had thrown them into a blender. It was beautiful and confusing.
  1748.     The lead Valbaran stopped abruptly, raising an arm and flashing its feathers in a shade of red. Everyone halted, Baker and Jaeger taking a knee amidst the pink ferns and shouldering their weapons. They had flipped up their full-faced visors because of the heat, and now Jaeger closed his, the integrated computer scanning his field of view for movement and heat signatures. He spotted something moving between two thick trunks a short distance ahead of them, scoping in on it.
  1749.     Two large eyes peered back at him, and he recognized it as one of the brown-feathered ostrich-lizards that they had seen from the observation tower on the wall.
  1750.     “It's just a Gue'tra,” he heard someone say, “keep moving.”
  1751.     The alien creature was skittish, abandoning the blue moss that it had been scraping off the trunk of a tree and fluttering its white-tipped wings as it fled away into the undergrowth. After a while, they arrived at the far side of the patch of forest, the Valbarans lurking at the edge of the plain as they peered out from between the trees. It seemed to be safe, and so they left the shade, emerging onto the savanna again. The change in heat and humidity was stark, another shock to the system. Jaeger couldn't decide whether he wanted to make use of the automatic darkening feature on his visor to protect his eyes from the sun's glare, or if he would rather feel the breeze on his face. The breeze eventually won out, and he flipped his visor up again, doing his best to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes.
  1752.     More movement drew his attention, and he looked up to see a flock of birds, different from those that he had seen in the patch of forest. These were smaller and lighter, more traditionally bird-like, swarming through the air in an ever-changing pattern like a shoal of fish swimming through the water. They were far off, so he couldn't make out very much detail.
  1753.     He noted that the leader of the group had changed, now one of the Valbaran soldiers with a notably lighter scale color was at the head of the flock. It seemed that they were all of equal standing, all seven of them equally in charge. How did that work? How did they decide who got to make the decisions and when? They hadn't paused so far to make a new plan, so whatever they were doing, they were doing it without any obvious communication. It was like second nature to them.
  1754.     Maza's flock was on the same page, moving silently save for the occasional feather signal. These were more complex than the simple flashes of color used to convey emotion, patterns and alternating hues sharing information that the humans couldn't parse. This was probably how they hunted silently in their distant past, not so much as a whisper giving them away to their prey. Unlike humans, the Valbarans did not seem eager to distance themselves from their predatory, carnivorous past. They seemed to see themselves, and indeed they described themselves, as pack hunters.
  1755.     Even Tacka, usually so timid and reserved, stalked the forest along with her sisters. He had to keep in mind that she too had flown a fighter during the dogfight in the Oort cloud, she was no less qualified than Maza or Coza to wield that rifle. It was as if by working as such a cohesive unit, they were able to lessen the weaknesses of each individual, Tacka's meekness and Coza's bravado less apparent when they were focused on a common goal. The flock really was greater than the sum of its parts.
  1756.     They reached another island of forest, and this time the group stopped for a few minutes, the Valbarans resting and checking in with their superiors. There was no sign of the Teth'rak yet, and there had been no new Bug activity. Jaeger and Baker decided to do a little exploring while they waited for their companions to recover their strength, wading through the ferns and checking out all of the strange plants and animals.
  1757.     They found some kind of lizard clinging to a tree trunk that was covered in green fluff, not quite fur and not quite feathers, along with more of the colorful reptilian birds that were hopping between the branches above them. There were insects everywhere, fluttering things with iridescent wings that seemed to be pollinating the colorful flowers.
  1758.     When they reached the edge of the patch of forest, they crouched between the trees, staying in cover as they had seen the Valbarans do so as not to draw any unwanted attention. Across the plain, they saw something massive in the distance. There was a whole herd of creatures, perhaps two dozen of them standing around a pocket of jungle as they used their long necks to nibble the tops of the trees.
  1759.     “Sauropods,” Baker marveled. “How far away do you think they are? They must be a hundred and twenty feet long at least, probably a hundred tons. It's like seein' a whale walking around on the land...”
  1760.     They did indeed look like dinosaurs, they had round bodies that were propped up on four massive, elephant-like legs. Much like the Teth'rak and the Geu'tra, they were covered in a coat of feathers, these ones a vibrant blue in color. They sported tall, decorative crests that rose from their spines. Behind them trailed a long and flexible tail that tapered into a whip, a counterbalance to their long, giraffe-like necks. They were stripping leaves from the tallest trees using horny beaks, the ornate crests that rose from the tops of their heads catching the sunlight, they were like walking lighthouses.
  1761.     “I never thought I'd be seeing anything like this when I became a pilot,” Jaeger laughed, taking a photograph of them with his phone. They heard rustling behind them, and Maza emerged from the undergrowth.
  1762.     “Come on, we're moving out. The target site is near.”
  1763.     They made their way back to the group, following them out of the forest and into the open once more. Jaeger felt vulnerable as they marched across the open grassland with no jungle canopy to protect them. The patches of forest were perhaps a half mile apart on average, and so it was quite a sprint to make it back to safety.
  1764.     The impact crater came into view in the distance, the grass around it charred and burned. The Valbarans advanced on it with their weapons raised, craning their flexible necks as they kept watch for danger. As the resident experts on Bug tech, Baker and Jaeger jogged to the front of the pack, reaching the lip of the crater and leaning over to peer inside with their rifles shouldered.
  1765.     It was a perfect bowl-shape, the sand and dirt had been turned to glass in places by the heat of the impact, but it was empty.
  1766.     “Uh...wasn't there supposed to be a Bug probe here or somethin'?” Baker asked.
  1767.     Jaeger walked around the circumference of the hole as the Valbarans looked on in confusion, deferring to the more experienced humans.
  1768.     “We should not linger in the open for too long, Earth'nay,” one of the soldiers warned as she scanned the horizon for danger. They had taken up a defensive position, set up in a rough circle with each of them facing a different direction.
  1769.     “Wait, there's something here,” Jaeger said as he took a knee beside a patch of scorched grass. “Look at this. There are tracks coming up this side of the crater and out into the field. They're like little indents, see that?”
  1770.     “Yeah,” Baker confirmed as he leaned over his shoulder. “So our probe got up and walked out of here? It could be fuckin' anywhere by now.”
  1771.     A Valbaran in green camo sidled up beside him, peering down at the indentations in the soil.
  1772.     “So you are suggesting that an organic probe could be fired from a spaceship, enter the atmosphere, dig a crater six feet deep, and then get up and walk away? These Betelgeusians are capable of such things?”
  1773.     “Oh yeah,” Baker replied, “that's the least impressive thing we've seen them do.”
  1774.     The Valbaran seemed to pause, it was like watching a computer freeze up.
  1775.     “What do we do?” she finally asked.
  1776.     “We should probably follow the tracks,” Jaeger suggested, rising to his feet and shielding his eyes from the sun as he peered out across the savanna in the direction that the probe must have gone. “Any of you guys know anything about tracking?”
  1777.     The Valbaran soldier whistled for her flock, Maza and her companions joining them in a huddle as the two humans waited nearby. They chittered and schemed, flashing their colorful plumes as they formulated a new plan to follow. They also made use of their handheld computers, holding what looked like a conference call with the higher-ups, a solitary head popping out to check for danger every few seconds. For not wanting to remain out in the open for too long, they certainly took their time, a UNN squad would already have moved out by now.
  1778.     “We will follow the trail,” one of the soldiers finally said, Jaeger and Baker sharing a look of relief as they set off again. It was difficult to follow the tracks through the tall grass, they were little more than round indentations, no doubt left by pointed limbs like those of an insect. They were only about two feet apart, so whatever they were looking for wasn't very large, and would likely be hidden by the grass. The aliens had a keen sense of smell, however. They picked up a scent that they described as a blend of burnt metal and ozone, following their noses where the tracks disappeared.
  1779.     After meandering around for a while, seemingly directionless, the thing seemed to have chosen a target and set off with more purpose. The tracks formed a straight line, leading back in the direction of the city.
  1780.     “It came here with a mission, obviously,” Jaeger said as they traced its steps. “It's heading straight back to the city, probably so it can crawl up the wall and tell its hive ship what kind of defenses we have.”
  1781.     “Have you seen this behavior before?” Maza asked as she bobbed along beside him. She seemed concerned, and after what her people had gone through on their lost colony planet, he couldn't blame her.
  1782.     “Not personally,” he replied, “but that's the tricky thing about Bugs. They're always changing, no two fleets are exactly alike. They usually build off of a kind of genetic blueprint that seems to be common to all hives, like they all start out with the same basic designs and then start...mutating them, based on their immediate needs.”
  1783.     “So...your people don't really know what we'll be facing when the Bugs launch their attack?”
  1784.     “Not exactly,” he admitted, “but let me put it another way. We've collectively fought dozens of individual Bug fleets over the last thirty years, and we beat most of them. Planets and systems changed hands a few times, we've had to give ground, but not often. That we're here at all is proof that we've been able to push them back and expand our borders. Nobody is more qualified for this job than the UNN.”
  1785.     That seemed to reassure her a little, but to be honest, he wasn't entirely sure himself. It usually took fleets comprised of two or more carriers along with an armada of support ships, not to mention massive battleships that could dole out some serious damage, in order to defend an inhabited planet from a full-blown invasion. It didn't happen very often either. The Bugs had never made it very far into UNN controlled space, they were mostly a problem on the outskirts where the colonies were less populated and harder to defend due to their remoteness.
  1786.     Could the Rorke defend the planet with only the Valbarans for support? It depended on the size of the Bug fleet. It sounded as if the abandoned Valbaran colony that was likely its point of origin had been a fertile planet, and the more raw materials the Bugs had access to, the better equipped the fleets that they sent out would be. One hive ship and a limited support fleet they could definitely deal with. Two or three and a suitable number of support ships would be stretching it.
  1787.     “We need to rest,” one of the soldiers said as she sidled up beside them, directing them to a nearby forest. They turned and made for the cover of the trees, the aliens locking their legs and checking in with command as they caught their breath in the shade. Jaeger wondered what kind of role the Coalition might be able to find for them if they should choose to join, they certainly couldn't keep pace with UNN Marines on the ground. Perhaps they would be better suited to piloting roles.
  1788.     Maza talked with the other aliens for a minute, pointing to something on one of the tablet computers, then returned to Jaeger and Baker.
  1789.     “We have people checking the top of the wall, it doesn't look like anything has climbed over it. At least there's no evidence of that. The probe is probably still between the crater and the city.”
  1790.     “That's good news at least,” Baker said.
  1791.     “There's another problem, however. They have eyes on the Teth'rak, and she's wandering this way. She hasn't seen us yet, or she'd be moving faster, and we're downwind of her so she won't pick up our scent. Even so, we should try to get this done and get back to Yilgarn as quickly as possible. She's about five miles South of us, and she can run at about twenty miles per hour, so if she spots us, we're going to have...a little under fifteen minutes to get to safety.”
  1792.     “We really don't want to be out here in the open when she notices we're here,” Coza added, “there's no weapon or armor that will do us any good against her.”
  1793.     “Shouldn't we get back behind the wall and then come take another look when she's moved off again?” Baker asked.
  1794.     “No,” Jaeger replied. “We don't know whether that probe is trying to send information back to the fleet, trying to poison the water supply, or trying to release some kind of deadly virus. Letting it run amok while we wait out the Teth'rak isn't an option. We don't have any time to waste, let's get moving.”
  1795.     They broke from cover and returned to the trail of Bug tracks, the city wall looming in front of them. They were almost back to the gate now, it was perhaps a quarter mile away from them to the right, still open a sliver. There was a large patch of forest to either side of them, maybe another half mile apart, and the Bug's tracks arced off to the left where they seemed to end at the foot of the structure.
  1796.     If what Maza had said was accurate, then the Teth'rak was probably a good distance South of the gate relative to them. They would have to move towards it to reach the probe. It was said to have good vision, and so it seemed likely that they would be spotted on this open field. They needed to get in and out fast if they didn't want to end up as dinosaur food.
  1797.     They reached the foot of the wall, and the tracks changed. Jaeger didn't need to be a master hunter to see that the insect had tried to climb up the glassy surface, leaving scratch marks where it had scrambled to find purchase, and then it had given up and walked along to the wall to the left. They followed the trail a little further, the subtle curvature of the structure masking the end of it, and a hole eventually came into view. It looked about the right size for a large dog, and there was a mound of dirt nearby, the creature had tried to dig its way under the wall to get inside the city.
  1798.     Jaeger took point, shouldering his rifle and edging closer to the hole. As he neared it, another spray of dirt was ejected from it, landing nearby to join the growing pile.
  1799.     “It's still here!” Jaeger announced, “back me up!”
  1800.     The Valbarans formed a rough crescent around the burrow as Jaeger leaned over to look inside. It was dark, he couldn't see very far, the thing had dug a pretty deep tunnel.
  1801.     “So are we going to try and recover this thing?” Baker asked.
  1802.     “If you want to squeeze down that hole and wrangle it, be my guest,” Jaeger replied. “I don't see any conceivable way to get it out of there. Maybe we can lure it out with something? Scare it out?”
  1803.     Baker stepped forward, aiming his XMR straight down into the hole and firing off a couple of rounds, the loud 'crack' echoing across the plains. They heard the creaking sound of scurrying insect limbs, and then the probe burst out of the hole like a bat out of hell, vanishing into the tall grass. Jaeger hadn't gotten more than a glimpse of it, but it looked like a giant, blue-shelled isopod or a woodlouse.
  1804.     “Get after it!” Baker shouted, but the Valbarans were already moving. They raced through the grass, even faster than the Bug, quickly surrounding it and blocking off its escape route. They kicked at it with their taloned feet like birds trying to kill a snake, hissing and spitting as their feathery plumes rose into vibrant displays of red and orange. When Baker and Jaeger arrived, the Bug had curled up into a tight sphere about the size of an exercise ball. Its iridescent, blue shell was divided into segments, again very much like a woodlouse. The carapace was charred and scored, no doubt damage sustained during its hard landing, and there was a hole in its rear that was leaking yellow ichor where Baker had shot it.
  1805.     “Alright, alright, back off,” Baker said as he warded the furious Valbarans away. Coza gave it one extra kick for good measure. He examined the creature, letting his rifle hang from its sling and scratching his chin. “Can we move it?”
  1806.     Jaeger shrugged.
  1807.     “I'm not going to try to pick it up.”
  1808.     Baker walked forward and slipped his hands underneath the blue carapace, straining to lift the thing. It wasn't very large, but it looked heavy, the shell was probably partially composed of metal in order to shield it from the heat of reentry.
  1809.     “Don't just stand there, Bullseye, give me a hand here.”
  1810.     Jaeger cursed, dropping his weapon to let it hang from his chest and making his way over to help Baker, taking the other side and struggling to raise it off the ground. Between them, they were able to carry it, the little critter seemed to want to stay inside its shell.
  1811.     “Alright,” Baker sighed, shifting the weight around. “Let's walk this thing back to the gate and-”
  1812.     The Bug sprang to life again, uncurling in a flash and flailing its sharp legs, Baker and Jaeger yelling in unison as they released it. The pointed, chitinous limbs tore into their body armor, scoring it like a penknife on a wooden desk and leaving deep scars in the material. Jaeger caught a leg to the face, his visor cracking and the HUD fizzling out as the thing made another break for it.
  1813.     “Fucking- just shoot it!” he shouted.
  1814.     There was a chorus of gunfire, and then the scurrying probe lay motionless in the grass, its segmented body limp as a dozen holes in its blue shell leaked syrupy fluids. Some of them were smoking, no doubt a result of the laser weapons.
  1815.     “Motherfucker,” Baker muttered, rising to his feet and brushing himself off. “I take back what I said about the body armor,” he grumbled as he looked himself over, “that thing had feet like knives.”
  1816.     “Let's take the body and get back to the gate,” Jaeger said, “I think that's enough excitement for one day.”
  1817.     As he walked over to the carcass and gave it a wary prod with the barrel of his XMR, he heard one of the Valbaran soldiers call out.
  1818.     “Stand by, receiving a message from control.” Her feathers fluttered in shades of yellow and blue as she listened, turning to the humans with a frightened expression. “Teth'rak comes this way, we must hurry, Earth'nay.”
  1819.     “The noise must have attracted it,” Maza added, her tone urgent. “Come, collect the Bug and let's go!”
  1820.     Baker and Jaeger took a couple of legs each, lifting it between them and hurrying in the direction of the gate. The thing was heavy and unwieldy, it was like trying to move a couch. The Valbarans clustered around them, weapons at the ready, and yet Jaeger knew that they would not fire on the creature. Not even if their own lives were on the line.
  1821.     As they rounded the wall, the gate came into view, and then Jaeger heard a low-frequency pulse. It wasn't heard so much as felt, the vibration shaking the ground and traveling up his spine, resonating in his very bones. He turned his head to look behind him and saw what looked like an angry explosion staring back at him. The Teth'rak was standing perhaps a quarter mile away.
  1822.     It was looking straight at them, the orange feathers around its neck and shoulders puffed up to expose the red hues beneath, framing its massive jaws as it panted and dripped strands of saliva. Its beady eyes watched them, the two streaks of white coloration on its snout making them appear far larger than they actually were, its pearly teeth contrasting with its fiery plumage.
  1823.     It emitted another call, the sound seeming to shake the earth. One would have expected the creature to open its jaws and loose an intimidating roar, but it sounded more like a whale, or maybe an unimaginably large alligator.
  1824.     Everyone froze, Baker and Jaeger included, a deeply primal dread overcoming them. It was one thing to be shot at by an enemy, but there was an ancient terror associated with being eaten by a predator, rooted deep in the amygdala.
  1825.     The two parties stared each other down for a moment, time crawling to a standstill. It began to walk towards them, its massive, three-toed feet splaying to carry its weight. Then it began to run, slowly gaining speed as it gave chase.
  1826.     By the time Jaeger and Baker had dropped the Bug carcass, the Valbarans were already halfway to the patch of woodland nearest the gate, about seven hundred feet away. Only Maza lingered as she hastily gestured for them to follow.
  1827.     “Come on, come on!”
  1828.     They ran, following after the aliens who were already nearing the edge of the forest, the Teth'rak growing in size alarmingly quickly as it drew closer. Jaeger felt like he was trying to run in molasses, as if he was trapped in a nightmare. He was sprinting faster than he ever had before, but he was slower than everything else on this damned planet. The beast's footsteps were reverberating through the ground like an earthquake, he could feel the thing gaining ground. The Valbarans had exhausted themselves, struggling the last two hundred feet or so and leaping between the cover of the stout tree trunks, Maza not far behind them. The two humans ran as fast as their legs would carry them, but their endurance was of no benefit here.
  1829.     The Teth'rak was moving rapidly. About twenty seconds had passed, and it had covered half of the distance already, bearing down on them like a freight train made of teeth. There was something about the upward curve of its mouth that made it look like it was smiling at them, which somehow made it even more terrifying.
  1830.     The forest was nearly within reach, and as the two humans neared the edge of the colorful ferns, they threw themselves between the thick trunks. Jaeger could feel the thing's hot breath on his back, rolling as he hit the ground. A tremendous crash shook the canopy above him, showering him with leaves and broken twigs as the Teth'rak rammed the barrier with its titanic head.
  1831.     Wood creaked, leaves rustled, and frightened birds took to the sky. But the roots ran deep, and the trees were strong enough to ward it off. As Jaeger scrambled away, shuffling backwards on his ass, he saw the Teth'rak's orange snout press between the two round trunks as it tried to force its way through. He was close enough to smell the carrion on its breath, its nostrils flaring and blowing the nearby ferns as it took in his scent. It reminded him of a dog trying to grab a chew toy that had rolled beneath the couch, twisting and gnashing, its prey just out of reach.
  1832.     It gave up, pulling back, the great head seeming to rise up into the sky. His heart leapt again as it came back into view, turning to the side and pressing its eye up against the gap. The proportionally tiny organ blinked as it focused, framed with that red and white patterning, the iris a striking shade of yellow. It looked right at him, and he saw a kind of dull awareness in its gaze, its pupil expanding as it watched him hungrily.
  1833.     Again it rose out of view, and this time the creature moved off, legs as tall and as thick as the tree trunks walking by as it shook the earth beneath it. It was circling the patch of forest, trying to find a way inside.
  1834.     Maza and Ayau rushed to his aid, helping him to his feet, the humans now as exhausted as the Valbarans. Jaeger's heart was pounding in his chest in a way that he had never felt before, like it was trying to escape through his throat. Even during a dogfight, he always remained calm and collected. There was a kind of detachment to space combat, an odd tranquility that came with the total lack of sound. But now, he was scared almost out of his wits, sweat stinging his eyes as he flung off his damaged helmet and ran his hands over his damp face.
  1835.     “You barely made it,” Maza gasped, “I thought I was going to have to watch you get eaten.”
  1836.     “My sixth birthday,” Baker wheezed, Jaeger turning his head to see his friend sitting in the ferns beside him.
  1837.     “What?” he snapped.
  1838.     “When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, my wish was to see a real live dinosaur. This wasn't what I had in mind.”
  1839.     The Teth'rak released another resonating call, Jaeger cursing as it shook him to the bone. It was behind them now, trying to find a way to get at them, but it seemed as if the trees were too dense.
  1840.     “Now what?” he asked, directing his question to Maza. “You guys won't let us shoot it, so how do we get out of here? We can't go back for the probe now.”
  1841.     “Maybe we can get a dropship to come pick us up,” Baker suggested.
  1842.     “No, the Teth'rak won't let it land,” Maza warned.
  1843.     “Jeez, maybe they could throw us a fucking rope?”
  1844.     Maza whistled to one of the Valbarans, seeming to argue with her for a moment, and then the alien tossed her the grenade launcher. The weapon was breech loaded, and she snapped it open, checking the barrel before clicking it back into place with a look of determination on her face.
  1845.     “We have the scent grenades, we can distract her, at least for a time.”
  1846.     “Enough time to run back to the gate?” Jaeger asked.
  1847.     “Probably,” she replied, a little more non-committal than Jaeger had been hoping for.
  1848.     She whistled, calling the other Valbarans over, the aliens unlocking their legs and huddling.
  1849.     “No, no huddling,” Jaeger said as they peered up at him with confused flurries of feathers. “There's no time to waste, that thing could break through the trees at any moment. Maza, you're going to fire that scent grenade as far as you can to our rear. We're gonna wait for the Teth'rak to go check it out, and once it gets far enough away, we're going to make a run for the gate.”
  1850.     “The grenade will only distract it for so long,” she replied.
  1851.     They jumped as there was another loud crash, the Teth'rak slamming the trees, using its head as a battering ram. More frightened birds erupted into the sky, screeching their alarm as it moved on, the orange feathers just visible through the dense trees as it stalked past.   
  1852.     “I guess there's no point waiting,” Maza conceded, shouldering the grenade launcher and aiming above the canopy to the East of them. With any luck, it would draw the animal to the rear of the forest, blocking them from view when they made their escape.
  1853.     “Just follow the plan,” Jaeger replied. “That's what you guys do best, right?”
  1854.     Maza pulled the trigger, the grenade shooting through the leaves and arcing into the distance. After a moment, they heard a crashing sound, followed by a low-frequency call as the creature abandoned its game of cat and mouse. The heavy footsteps grew fainter as it ran off to investigate the smell.
  1855.     That was their signal, the Valbarans who had been poised at the edge of the forest shooting out like Olympic sprinters. Baker and Jaeger followed behind them, running out of cover and across the open plain, the wind rushing in their ears. They had discarded their heavy armor plating and their rifles, it wouldn't do them any good if they ended up in the jaws of the Teth'rak.
  1856.     As Jaeger ran, he turned his head to look over his shoulder, seeing the tail of the gigantic monster vanish around the edge of the small island of trees. When he swiveled his head to look in front of him again, he had almost caught up to the group of now spent Valbarans. They had run as far as they could, and now they were exhausted, limping along and panting. They were about halfway there, the open gate was tantalizingly close, but the little aliens had expended their energy. All they could manage now was a kind of slow jog, little better than walking.
  1857.     “Heads up!” Baker shouted, scooping up the two slowest aliens who were lingering at the rear and carrying them under his arms. He ran ahead of the pack, reaching the door and flinging them through the narrow gap, where Valbarans wearing the light green of medical personnel were waiting to catch them. Jaeger saw what he was trying to do and followed suit, bundling the next two slowest aliens in his arms and pushing himself towards the gate, Xico yelping as he plucked her off the ground. He passed Baker, who was turning back to help the rest of them, releasing his charges near the opening before he too turned about and made his way back into the proverbial fire.
  1858.     By now, the faster Valbarans were reaching the gate, Maza and the rest of her flock among them. As Baker returned with two more passengers, Jaeger made for the last straggler. To his horror, from around the patch of forest appeared the Teth'rak's massive head, its orange plumes flaring into shades of red as it laid eyes on the intruders. It was done investigating the scent grenade, and now it was back to finish the job. It rounded the trees, breaking into a ponderous run that looked deceptively slow. Its size made its movements appear sluggish, and yet it must be running at twenty miles an hour or more, loosing another reverberating pulse of low-frequency noise. It sounded like the musical sting for a fucking horror movie.
  1859.     Every fiber of his being told Jaeger to turn around and save his own skin, and yet he couldn't abandon that last Valbaran. The little alien turned her head to look behind her as she struggled forward, her crown of feathers flaring in shades of shocked yellow and dismayed blue. He didn't know this one's name, she was one of the soldiers clad in green and purple camouflage, but something inside him compelled him to sprint towards the open jaws of the advancing beast. Images of Boomer's Beewolf being split in half by the claw of the Bug carrier flashed in his mind, his friend's torn cockpit tumbling away into the asteroids, Jaeger within spitting distance yet powerless to help.
  1860.     Not again. Never again.
  1861.     He skidded to a stop like a batter arriving at home base, the Valbaran extending her arms towards him, and he caught her around the waist as he dug his boots into the dirt. He summoned the last of his strength to power his body forwards, adrenaline coursing through his veins, his muscles burning as he felt the Teth'rak's thunderous footsteps shake the earth.
  1862.     The Valbaran clung to him like a baby monkey, her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs locked around his waist and her tail coiling around him like a snake. As he raced towards the gate, his friends beckoned to him, urging him on with dread etched into their expressions. No doubt the Teth'rak was right on his heels, its mouth open wide enough to swallow him whole, but he didn't turn his head to look at it. He had one mission right now, and he wasn't going to fail.
  1863.     He flew through the small gap, rolling to the ground with his charge clutched in his arms, the Teth'rak ramming the gate with its sledgehammer head barely a second after him. The gates were already closing, and the gap was too small for the thing to get its wide snout through, but it tried all the same. There was the sound of rending metal as it used its teeth like a hatchet, swinging its head to drive them into the gate, throwing all of its immense weight at the obstacle. Jaeger kept a tight hold on the Valbaran as he sat on the ground, watching as the gates closed and the last sliver of orange feathers vanished. It looked like the door would hold, and as the monster loosed one final hair-raising call, the banging ceased.
  1864.     The next thing he knew, the doctors were prying his arms apart. They guided the exhausted Valbaran towards the rest of the team, who were standing with their legs locked, or lying down as the medics tended to them. There was what looked like some kind of helicopter parked on the grass nearby, the same white color as all of their technology, save for markings in light green along the side. It seemed to have a single large rotor mounted on the top, the chassis rounded and streamlined, a landing ramp on the rear open to expose the interior. It was some kind of air ambulance, these must be what were parked on the landing pads at the hospital.
  1865.     Baker was crouched off to the right, giving Jaeger a thumbs up as he drank from a water bottle that they had provided him. One of the medics scurried over to him and handed him a bottle of vaguely blue liquid, Jaeger wiping the sweat from his face on his sleeve and taking a long draw. It tasted sugary, like a sports drink.
  1866.     “Did everyone make it back?” Jaeger asked, still catching his breath. The adrenaline was starting to wear off now, and he just felt exhausted.
  1867.     “You saved them!” Maza threw herself into his arms, pushing her snout into the nape of his neck and nuzzling as she laughed giddily. She knocked him off balance, and he lay on his back, her face framed by the blue sky above them. “You went back for that soldier, she would have been eaten for sure. A second later and you would both have ended up in the Teth'rak's stomach!”
  1868.     “I...didn't want to leave anyone behind,” he explained. She pressed her forehead against his, her sheaths extending and her feathers rising in shades of deep pink, her scales cool against his burning skin. For a moment, it was like nobody else existed, her violet eyes opening to meet his gaze, her pupils round and dark. She realized that she was straddling him, and she hopped off, seeming embarrassed by her impromptu show of affection.
  1869.     “Drink,” she said, leaning in and guiding the rim of the plastic bottle to his lips. “Recover your strength.”
  1870.     “Don't worry about it, I'll be fine in a few minutes,” he protested. “I've run a lot further than that before, but I think I might have just beaten my record for the hundred-yard dash.”
  1871.     She laughed, probably having no idea what he was talking about, but her relief was palpable.
  1872.     “You two are heroes,” she said as Baker walked over to join them, reaching up to pat him on the back.
  1873.     “All credit goes to Baker,” Jaeger said as he took another swig from the bottle. “Carrying the Valbarans was his idea, I was just following his example.”
  1874.     “Yeah, but you were the one who almost got eaten by a dinosaur,” Baker chuckled as he offered him his hand. Jaeger took it, his friend pulling him to his feet and trapping him in a one-armed hug. “So what do we get? A medal, a key to the city?” Baker asked as he released Jaeger. “I'll settle for a chance to fire a riot control grenade off the top of the wall at that toothy asshole. Fucker's as mean as a rattlesnake.”
  1875.     “He's joking,” Jaeger said as Maza gave Baker a confused look. “Any injuries to report?”
  1876.     “Everyone is fine, they're just tired, a few pulled muscles and sprained ankles maybe. The medical personnel are administering fluids.”
  1877.     “You guys really suffer when you push yourselves too hard,” Jaeger mused as he looked over the group of resting aliens. It looked like the scene of some kind of natural disaster or maybe a car accident.
  1878.     “I assume that Earth'nay do too when they exceed their limitations,” she replied.
  1879.     “I guess that's true. How about you? Shouldn't you be resting with the others?”
  1880.     “I'll survive,” she replied with a toothy grin.
  1881.     “We need to report in,” Baker said, “fleetcom is going to be wondering where we are.”
  1882.     “Oh shit, you're right,” Jaeger muttered as he dug in his pocket for his phone. They had left the helmets, along with the rest of their gear, out on the plains. The people in charge of requisitions probably wouldn't be too happy with them. The mission had been accomplished, however. The Bug probe had been destroyed. Perhaps someone could go out and recover the carcass when the Teth'rak had moved off, Jaeger certainly wasn't going to set foot outside the gate a second time.
  1883.     He saw something moving out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see the flock of soldiers approaching him, the rest of Maza's flock following close behind them. The one at the front of the pack was the one that Jaeger had saved last, he recognized her tan scales.
  1884.     “My name is Cuetz'xauh'qui,” she said, bowing her head. “You have saved my life, and the lives of my flock, Earth'nay. We are indebted to you.”
  1885.     The aliens puffed up their plumes in a deep shade of red in unison, bowing before the two humans in what Jaeger recognized as a show of respect.
  1886.     “You're welcome,” Jaeger replied, not really knowing how else to respond.
  1887.  
  1888. CHAPTER 13: NIGHT ON THE TOWN
  1889.    
  1890.     After a short debriefing back at the spaceport, they were dismissed, Jaeger and Baker returning to Maza's domed house on one of the mag-lev trains. Several of the probes had been destroyed, but a few had been recovered, and as had been expected they were packed with transmitters and sensory equipment. They were spies, sent to assess the defenses on the ground. You didn't have to be a master strategist to guess that it was the precursor to a full-on invasion. The Bugs had moved up their timetable, an attack could come any day now.
  1891.     Maza stared vacantly out of the window as she sat beside him in the train car, Jaeger nudging her with his elbow to get her attention.
  1892.     “Hey, you alright?”
  1893.     “I was just thinking,” she said, looking forlorn. “The Bugs have set foot on Val'ba'ra, this is only the beginning. Soon we'll be at war. It will be like what happened on Ker'gue'la.”
  1894.     “No it won't,” Jaeger replied, doing his best to reassure her. “We're here this time. We have ships, weapons, experience. There's no way we're going to let them take this planet.”
  1895.     “But even if we win, lots of people are going to die all the same. Entire cities might be razed.”
  1896.     “We're going to do all that we can to prevent that.”
  1897.     “I saw how worried everyone was at the debriefing,” she continued, “I can read Earth'nay facial expressions pretty well by now. The appearance of the probes bothered them, they expected to have more time to prepare. It's only been a few days, they won't have had time to manufacture enough new weapons for the orbital defense grid, they won't have been able to install them yet...”
  1898.     “It's no use worrying,” Jaeger said with a shrug. “You won't do yourself, nor anyone else any good by making yourself miserable.”
  1899.     “How can you be so...aloof?” she asked, looking up at him with a flurry of purple feathers. “The world might end tomorrow for all we know, but you're not worried at all?”
  1900.     “Sure I'm worried, but like I said, worrying doesn't help anyone. Being a soldier is ninety percent waiting, ten percent fighting. If you let it, your worry and your apprehension will drive you crazy, fry your nerves. You have to accept that some things are outside of your control, you have to distract yourself.”
  1901.     “Distract myself?”
  1902.     “Yeah. What do Valbarans do to unwind, what do you do to relax? If this really was your last day, how would you want to spend it?”
  1903.     “You've really...put a lot of thought into this,” Maza said, a hint of pity in her voice. “Before we encountered the Bugs, we always imagined joining this...advanced, enlightened Galactic community. They'd share with us advanced technology, philosophies, medicines. They'd show us wonders that we could never have imagined. Instead, the Galactic community is at war. First contact with the Bugs was followed by the complete destruction of our colony, and the next group of aliens that we met was a war fleet. We thought that we could escape our problems by reaching the stars. Instead, we just traded old problems for new ones.”
  1904.     “It's not all that grim,” Jaeger said. “Sure, we're at war with the Bugs, but the other species all get along pretty well. You saw that the Rorke's crew compliment was made up of several different alien races. Further inside Coalition space, things are pretty peaceful. We have to deal with organized crime and piracy on occasion, but it's only on the borders that wars flare up. If we survive...I mean, when this is all over, if you guys choose to join us then we can bring you into the fold. You'll have the chance to found new colonies, we'll be able to open up trade routes to Valbara, we'll be able to protect you from the Bugs. This can still turn out okay.”
  1905.     “You asked me what I'd do if this really was our last night alive,” she said, glancing up at him wistfully. “Perhaps I should show you how Val'ba'ra'nay have fun?”
  1906.     “That sounds like a good start,” he said with a grin.
  1907.    
  1908. ***
  1909.    
  1910.     They stopped at the dwelling so that the aliens could change out of their uniforms. Unfortunately, Baker and Jaeger had no choice but to keep theirs on. When they were done, the group set off towards the city in another mag-lev train. Baker was always the first one off the carrier when they had shore leave, he was always seeking out street vendors and dive bars, eager to explore the bowels of stations and outposts. He had no complaints, the prospect of a night on the town had him excited.
  1911.     Jaeger might have preferred a quiet night of reflection, excitement would not be something that they were going to be lacking in the coming days, but he was also interested in exploring more aspects of Valbaran society. He would never share the sentiment with Maza and her friends, of course, but that society might not be around for very much longer. There was something oddly melancholic about the idea of dancing in a nightclub or drinking in a bar that might be razed to the ground the next day.
  1912.     The familiar spires of the city rose up in front of them as they raced along the track, the train having to tilt at a ninety-degree angle again to avoid an oncoming car, the motion never failing to alarm Jaeger and amuse Baker. By the time the train car slid into the station, the setting sun was already painting the sky in shades of pink and orange, stars just starting to become visible above their heads.
  1913.     “They say that the setting sun's colors are a premonition of the coming day,” Maza said, noticing that he was staring at it.
  1914.     “And what do pink and orange mean to a Valbaran?”
  1915.     “Pink is love and romance, orange is somewhere between anger and surprise, blue is sadness.”
  1916.     “Somehow, I doubt that you get many greens and purples in your sunsets.”
  1917.     She fluttered her feathers in a Valbaran shrug.
  1918.     “It's just a myth. There's a lot of pink today, though...”
  1919.     They descended the escalator that led to the city street. Once again, the crowds of Valbarans gawked at the aliens, their heads pivoting on their long necks to get a look. This time, Maza had no patience for press conferences, her flock surrounding the two humans as they ferried them away. They must have made one of their plans at some point, because they knew exactly where they were going, in perfect coordination as they pushed and dragged the humans towards their destination.
  1920.     Valbaran cities were far smaller than their human equivalents, and it didn’t take long before Jaeger found himself in a side street, away from the prying eyes of the crowds. Here, only a few Valbaran flocks disturbed them, peering at the aliens as they passed them by.
  1921.     There was an abundance of neon signs here, the alien text that adorned them indecipherable, but it was such an oddly human sight. If it had not been for the strange lettering, he might have assumed that he was in some East Asian city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, maybe Tokyo. The signs came in all colors, mostly yellows that no doubt promised excitement, and greens that perhaps promised relaxation or tranquility. He would have to ask Maza about more of their colors and how they related to different emotions. It was easy to guess some of them based on the context, but he had never seen any of the green hues before.
  1922.     This was the only place that he had visited within the walls of the Valbaran city that didn't look like it had been thoughtfully sculpted. There were no rolling hills here, no trees or flowers, no swooping buttresses or elaborate decorations. It was just a regular alley that was sandwiched between two large buildings, nothing clinical or planned about it. There were exposed cables hanging between the two structures, and many of the signs were askew. The buildings blocked the sunlight to make it darker, it all looked very makeshift. A hiccup in the grand design, perhaps?
  1923.     Maza noticed his confused expression, tugging him along by the hand as she explained.
  1924.     “Even we can't foresee every eventuality, sometimes city planners fail to account for certain factors or make mistakes. Here we have an alleyway where there was supposed to be some kind of facility or service, but it was deemed unnecessary sometime after it was constructed, and subsequently abandoned. Entrepreneurs moved in and took advantage of the vacant space.”
  1925.     “Is that the only way that Valbarans can start their own businesses?” Jaeger asked. He hadn't thought about it until now, but if everything was pre-planned, how did they account for people wanting to open their own stores or purchase more land? Expansion was impossible in a walled city.
  1926.     “Not entirely, there are a certain number of buildings and allotments created for that purpose, but this is one of the more...unorthodox establishments.”
  1927.     “Illegal..?” Jaeger asked apprehensively.
  1928.     “Not illegal, no. Val'ba'ra'nay consider such places...unsavory. There's a word in our language that has no translation in yours, it means 'to act outside of the plan'. This establishment acts outside of the plan.”
  1929.     “But you're bringing us here all the same?”
  1930.     “You said that you wanted to see what we do for fun,” she said with a shrug, “and places like this can be fun.”
  1931.     “Come on,” Coza said, giving him a shove from behind. “You faced the jaws of the Teth'rak, Earth'nay, you can face this too. Baker shares none of your fears.”
  1932.     “Dive bar,” Baker whispered, nudging Jaeger with his elbow.
  1933.     “Don't eat or drink anything until we scan it first,” Jaeger warned, patting the pocket where he had stored the food scanning device.
  1934.     Maza led them towards a small door at the base of one of the buildings, all of the neon signs appeared to be directing pedestrians to it. It might otherwise have been invisible from the street, but still, that was a lot of fucking signs for one dive bar.
  1935.     He and Baker ducked under the low doorway, proceeding down a narrow staircase into what looked like a dingy basement. If this place wasn't illegal, it was certainly as close to illegal as one could get before the police came knocking.
  1936.     “The main reason that I'm bringing you here is because it will be quiet,” she explained as she held another door open for him. “There are upscale restaurants in the city, but they'll be packed, and we would spend the whole night fighting off curious locals. I thought that some privacy might be appreciated.”
  1937.     Jaeger ducked through another doorway and emerged into some kind of dingy parlor. The ceiling was low enough that he had to slouch to avoid bumping his head, and immediately, something that smelled like herbs or maybe incense reached his nose. He was standing in a roughly circular room with no windows, as it was below street level, and the walls were adorned with the same style of fabric curtains that he had seen in Maza's bedroom. It was lit with a similar red glow, and the air was thick with what looked like cigarette smoke, the floor carpeted in a thick shag. There was what might be a bar off to one side, and there were a few tables scattered about the center of the space, some of them occupied by locals who turned their heads to peer at the visitors. Around the circumference of the room were a series of booths separated by low walls, seemingly designed to grant the occupants some privacy. The interiors were packed with cushions like those that the Valbarans slept on, arranged around a low table, clearly designed to let the occupants lounge around while they presumably ate or drank.
  1938.     Maza led the group over to one of the booths, the Valbarans taking seats on the plush cushions. With their long tails, they weren't especially suited to sitting down in the way that a human would, at least not without their director's chairs. Instead, they lounged slightly on their sides as they shifted their weight to get comfortable. Baker and Jaeger joined them, there wasn't much leg room between the seating and the table, and so Jaeger sat cross-legged while Baker sat with his knees up near his chin. The curtains that decorated the walls of the booth were hanging a little low for their liking too, brushing against them from behind.
  1939.     They got some stares from the other patrons, but the interest quickly evaporated, they seemed more concerned with whatever it was that they were drinking from what looked like champagne flutes. Trouble in paradise perhaps? Yilgarn wasn't all whitewashed metal and happy smiles after all. In a way, Jaeger felt relieved, their seemingly perfect society had been starting to make him feel inadequate.
  1940.     Seeing that they had chosen a booth, one of the several aliens who was staffing the counter made its way over to them, talking with Maza for a moment before leaving again. The two humans watched curiously, wondering what was going to happen next.
  1941.     “So is this like a bar?” Jaeger asked, “like the one we showed you on the Rorke?”
  1942.     “A little,” Maza replied. “I think they serve the same purpose, even if the substances are different.”
  1943.     “Do Valbarans drink alcohol?” Baker wondered, watching the other patrons who were sipping from their glass tubes.
  1944.     “We ferment grains to make alcohol,” Xico confirmed as she lay on the cushions across from them, “though Earth'nay seem to be able to consume more of it. Probably due to your larger size.”
  1945.     A different Valbaran walked over, carrying something on a metal tray, and set it down in the middle of the table. It was a vaguely bulb-shaped device with a long neck, a bowl at the top, and half a dozen flexible hoses trailing out of it. It seemed to be made from blown glass, embellished with colorful resins or maybe metals in shades of green.
  1946.     Maza reached over, picking up a small container that was resting beside the device on the tray, upending it into the bowl and placing a metal cap that was dotted with ventilation holes over the top of it. The stuff had looked like dried grass or maybe tobacco. There was some kind of heating element in the top, and she lit it with the press of a switch, a red glow emanating from the device.
  1947.     “What's this?” Jaeger asked, watching as Coza reached over to pick up one of the tubes. She pressed the tip of it against her lips, the flexible hose adorned with what looked a little like a metal whistle. When she drew on it, a bubbling sound emanated from the vase-shaped bottom of the device, the alien leaning back into the cushions and exhaling a cloud of smoke or vapor.
  1948.     “Oh, it's like a hookah!” Baker exclaimed. Jaeger shot him a questioning look.
  1949.     “A what?”
  1950.     “A hookah. It's for smoking. I guess the Valbarans smoke!”
  1951.     “What's in there?” Jaeger asked warily, directing his question towards Maza as she took another one of the tubes in her hand and drew on it for a moment.
  1952.     “A mixture of dried herbs and fruits,” she said, grey smoke trailing out of her mouth with every word and reminding Jaeger of a fire breathing dragon. “You should try it, I doubt there's anything in there that your kind can't tolerate.”
  1953.     Baker leaned forward to pick up one of the tubes, but Jaeger batted his hand away.
  1954.     “Use the scanner, for fuck's sake. For all you know, this shit could make your lungs collapse.”
  1955.     Jaeger rummaged in his pocket for the handheld device, holding it up to the hookah as Baker leaned closer to read the tiny display. The vase-like base was simply full of water, while the tray on the top contained a mixture of plant fibers and fruit sugars. The chemical compounds were more complex, however. There were significant traces of something analogous to nicotine, along with a lesser amount of something that the scanner listed as 'tetrahydrocannabinol'.
  1956.     “The scanner says it's safe to consume, but I don't think this thing has a setting for smoking,” Jaeger said. “I don't recognize this chemical either, any ideas Baker?”
  1957.     “That's THC,” Baker chuckled.
  1958.     “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
  1959.     “It's pot, dude. Cannabis. These guys must have something similar to hemp that grows here.”
  1960.     “Oh,” Jaeger mumbled, not sure how to react. The flock of aliens were all drawing on their respective hoses, and there was one left for the two humans, the smoke that they exhaled rising to join the thick smog that was already hanging in the air. This wasn't so much a bar as a smoking lounge.
  1961.     Ayau took a long draw, letting the wisps of smoke rise from her nostrils, then sank into the nest of cushions as her headdress flared in a relaxed shade of green.
  1962.     “Do Earth'nay not partake?” Maza asked, cocking her head.
  1963.     “Hell, I'll try it,” Baker said.
  1964.     “Hang on, I don't know if we should be getting high in uniform,” Jaeger warned. “Or at all. We're still on call, what if something happens and we need to report in?”
  1965.     “Anything that gets these little guys wasted won't do much more than give us a buzz,” Baker said. “And besides, Captain Fielding sent us here to investigate the alien culture, we're ambassadors! It would be rude to refuse.”
  1966.     The aliens were a lot smaller than the humans, maybe the hit really was a lot more powerful for them than it would be for him and Baker. He watched as his friend lifted one of the tubes to his lips and drew on it, blowing a smoke ring that rose slowly into the air, the flock of aliens watching with wide eyes.
  1967.     “Do that again!” Ayau exclaimed. Apparently, the Valbarans had never seen someone do that trick before. Baker obliged, a yellow flutter of excitement passing around the table as they chittered and warbled. If they had known how to clap, they probably would have applauded him.
  1968.     “I didn't know you were a smoker,” Jaeger said, Baker shrugging as he took another puff from the hookah.
  1969.     “Let's just say that I did a lot more than studying during my college years.”
  1970.     Another Valbaran approached their table, talking briefly with Maza in their native language before returning to the counter. This establishment must be run by a flock, was this one taking their orders?
  1971.     “Should we be ordering anything?” Jaeger asked, “do we need money?”
  1972.     “Don't worry about it,” Maza said, “just relax. We'll take care of the rest.”
  1973.     “We won't have much use for money if we're going to be dead in a few days,” Coza added, laughing bitterly. “I hadn't been born yet when Ker'gue'la fell, I had only ever seen Bugs in pictures and video files, recordings from the war. Now I've seen one with my own two eyes, I've touched it, it was as real as you or I. It was walking around on our planet, digging in our dirt, it slipped right past our defenses. Tell me Earth'nay, is what your Captain said true? Will our defenses be useless against a Bug invasion fleet?”
  1974.     The flock watched him expectantly as he attempted to formulate a reply that wouldn't further darken the mood, puffing on their hoses. He decided to skirt the issue altogether, trying to instill a little hope in the aliens.
  1975.     “It doesn't matter. With our upgrades, your defense platforms are going to be equipped with the same railguns that we use on our gunboats. Those twenty-millimeter cannons will shred small fighters that get close. We have the Rorke, the support fleet, a whole squadron of Beewolfs. It's all top of the line, cutting edge.”
  1976.     “This isn't our first rodeo,” Baker added, “we're seasoned exterminators. A Bug fleet has never taken down a UNN carrier, not even once. I ain't been shot down yet, and I don't intend to start any time soon.”
  1977.     His bluster seemed to put Coza more at ease, the alien nodding appreciatively as she flashed her plumes in a shade of deep red.
  1978.     “You Earth'nay are braver than I gave you credit for. I wasn't sure that you were being sincere before, when you said that you were here to help us. I thought that the Ensi trusted you too readily. After all, we spend twenty rotations building up our defenses, and then an alien fleet jumps in out of nowhere and volunteers to protect us? It sounded too good to be true. What if the second you gained control, you just turned everything off and took the planet in a day? What made your people better suited to the job than ours? The Bugs weren't friendly, why should you be any different? Your ships were equipped for war, after all.”
  1979.     She took another long draw from the hookah, which seemed to calm her nerves, leaning back against the cushions as she turned her head towards the ceiling and exhaled slowly.
  1980.     “But today, I saw you two save Xico and the others. Jaeger, I watched you pluck that soldier from the very jaws of the Teth'rak. You didn't even know her name, but you risked your life for hers. That's no small thing, not in our culture, at least.”
  1981.     She didn't say it in so many words, but Jaeger was starting to get the impression that they had earned the surly alien's respect, perhaps even her trust.
  1982.     “All in a day's work,” Baker said.
  1983.     “Perhaps if we survive this,” she continued, “there might be a future for us in your Coalition.”
  1984.     What must be the waiter returned with another tray, this one loaded with the same champagne flutes that Jaeger had seen the other patrons using. They were thin and tall, made from glass or some kind of clear plastic, kind of like test tubes. They were filled with a vaguely yellow-colored, but otherwise transparent liquid. The alien set the tray down on the table and then left without another word, the flock leaning in, each member taking one of the glasses. There were two left, one for each human.
  1985.     This time Baker waited for Jaeger to scan them, and the results showed nothing that they couldn't stomach. Jaeger watched as his friend took a sip, the glass tiny in his oversized hands, smacking his lips as he sampled the flavor.
  1986.     “Tastes kind of like dry wine,” he said, “it's bitter.”
  1987.     Jaeger saw no harm in trying some himself, they were allowed two alcoholic beverages per day while stationed on the Rorke, after all. He brought the narrow glass to his lips and sipped at it experimentally. It was chilled, cool on his tongue, and there was indeed a bitter aftertaste to it. There wasn't enough alcohol content to be of any real significance, it probably wasn't much more potent than a beer.
  1988.     Maza seemed pleased that he was participating, watching him intently with her unblinking eyes as he took another sip from the glass. He was trying to make it last, there wasn't much more than a couple of mouthfuls for a human. Everyone seemed to be relaxing now, letting off steam, the aliens lounging on the cushions as they drank and smoked. Jaeger hadn't imagined them this way, they had seemed downright prudish at times, but now he was seeing them in a more human light. They got depressed sometimes, they got drunk, and they took drugs, they went to seedy bars. Their society wasn't any more perfect than his own, they just did things differently, they had different priorities.
  1989.      “So this is how you like to relax?” Jaeger asked, looking pointedly around the dingy lounge.
  1990.     “When we need to do a whole lot of relaxing in a short amount of time, yes,” Maza replied with a chuckle. “Don't Earth'nay have anything similar?”
  1991.     “We do, that's what I find so surprising. I can travel sixty-five light-years from home and still find people getting drunk in a bar.”
  1992.     She laughed at that, taking another drink from her glass.
  1993.     “Maybe integrating into the Galactic community won't be so difficult for us after all...”
  1994.     “All living things function on the same biological reward system,” Xico said, coughing a little as she exhaled a plume of smoke. “We all have dopamine receptors in our brains, or something similar, chemicals that incentivize us to pursue certain behaviors. Any sufficiently advanced species that develops a knowledge of chemistry, or even one that stumbles across a substance that has the same effect, will inevitably find a way to hack that system and obtain the rewards without the associated behaviors.”
  1995.     “That certainly seems to be the case,” Jaeger said, shifting his weight as he tried to get comfortable on the cushions. “The Borealans developed a drink called 'raises the hair', humans have all kinds of alcoholic beverages and other substances. I'm not sure about the Krell, they probably have some kind of hallucinogenic plant or something like that.”
  1996.     “Tell me more about the Krell'nay,” Ayau said, leaning across the table excitedly. “What's their home planet like?”
  1997.     “It's mostly mud flats and swamps, they're semi-aquatic, so they're as at home in the water as they are on land. I've seen pictures of their planet, their villages are made from wood, built around ancient trees and supported by stilts that raise them above the ground.”
  1998.     “They sound primitive, yet they are spacefaring?”
  1999.     “Not exactly, they have a special relationship with another species called the Brokers, who ferry them to and from the planet. Why are you so interested in the Krell anyway, Ayau? I remember you kept climbing on their shoulders back on the Rorke.”
  2000.     She took another draw from the pipe, her feathers fluttering a calming shade of spearmint.
  2001.     “Can't you tell? They're monstrously large, muscular, snouts longer than anything I've ever seen. They're like the ultimate females, like a war Goddess from ancient Val'ba'ra'nay legend.”
  2002.     “They're all male,” Baker added, her feathers fluttering in shades of surprised yellow.
  2003.     “R-really!?”
  2004.     “Yep, every Krell that serves as an auxiliary in the UNN is male, except when they change their sex. When there are too many males packed into one place, some of 'em start to change gender. They have to take a special plant supplement from their homeworld to stop it, or they'll start breedin' endlessly.”
  2005.     “I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything less from aliens,” Ayau said as she leaned back into the plush cushions.
  2006.     “Let me ask you guys a question,” Jaeger began, “what's with the names?”
  2007.     “How do you mean?” Maza replied.
  2008.     “What about our names?” Ayau asked.
  2009.     “Why are your names so complicated, and why are they split into three sections?”
  2010.     “I always found it strange that your people only have one name,” Ayau said. “Excluding honorifics like Captain or Lieutenant, and callsigns, of course.”
  2011.     “Well...technically we do have more than one name,” he admitted, “but in a professional environment people usually only refer to you by your family name.”
  2012.     “Oh? Then what are your full names?” Maza asked, “is it impolite to ask?”
  2013.     “No, no, it's fine. We usually have a first name, which is given to us by our parents, and then a surname which is inherited from our family. Some people have a middle name too, usually as a reference to their heritage or a public figure. My first name is Carl, for example, given to me by my parents. Then Jaeger is a family name that I inherited from my father. I don't have a middle name.”
  2014.     “My given name is Richard, and my surname is Baker,” Baker added. “My middle name is Harold, after my grandfather.”
  2015.     “Richard Harold Baker,” Maza repeated. “Is that much more complicated than Maza'xol'natuih, or Ayau'pal'lea?”
  2016.     “I suppose not,” Jaeger said as he took another sip from his glass. “Do Valbaran names have a similar significance?”
  2017.     “Ours are a little different. Val'ba'ra'nay names are made up of three sections, all of which combine to form a unified name, much in the same way that a flock comes together to form a whole. It's given by the parents, or rather the flock to which the child's parents belong. There isn't much of a distinction between different members of the flock and who actually sired the child, they all make up a family unit.”
  2018.     “So that means you had like six moms and one dad?” Baker asked, and she nodded.
  2019.     “My parent flock had seven mothers, actually.
  2020.     “What do your names mean?” Jaeger continued. She fluttered her feathers in a shade of purple, a little embarrassed perhaps.
  2021.     “Well...'Maza' is the first of my names, it's a kind of blooming flower that grows in this region. Naming children after flowers is fairly popular in our culture, the more superstitious will say that it helps them achieve their goals later in life.”
  2022.     “Yeah, it's the same in ours,” Jaeger said. “Daisy or Jasmine, for example.”
  2023.     “Then there's 'Xol', a name that means...” She thought for a moment, staring off into space. “I suppose the best translation is to fly or to soar. It's not so much a literal translation, the word conveys a concept in our language that it probably doesn't in yours, a feeling. When you hear it, you get a sense of...freedom, of flying like a bird. Perhaps it's one of the reasons that I wanted to join the Air Force and become a pilot at such an early age.”
  2024.     “What about the last name?” Baker asked, taking another puff from the hookah.
  2025.     “That one is 'Natuih', the last name usually consists of a reference to an emotion or a concept that the parent flock hopes the child will achieve. Mine means happiness, it's rather generic.”
  2026.     “Do Earth'nay names have any special meaning?” Xico asked.
  2027.     “Not always,” Jaeger replied, uncrossing his legs for a moment as they were starting to cramp. “First names rarely have a special meaning, but surnames usually do. Baker, for example, refers to a profession from the ancient world, a person who used to make bread and other baked goods. Smith is a common name, that refers to a person who used to forge metal and make things like tools or weapons. My name is an old German word for hunter, my ancestors came from that region.”
  2028.     “And what about you, Coza?” Baker asked, keeping the conversation going. “What does your name mean?”
  2029.     “The name 'Coza' refers to an ancient bladed weapon used in warfare,” she replied, her tone somber. “My second name, 'Ma' conveys the concept of safety or perhaps fortification. As Maza'xol'natuih already explained, the feeling that it conveys is hard to translate.” She brought one of the flexible hoses to her mouth, inhaling before letting the smoke slowly billow from her nostrils, the two humans waiting for her to continue with bated breath. “My last name is 'Lotl', which means vengeance.”
  2030.     “Ok then...” Baker mumbled, giving Jaeger a sideways glance. “Is there any particular reason that your parents chose such...uh...colorful names for you?”
  2031.     “I was born on Val'ba'ra, but my parents were among those that made the journey to Ker'gue'la before the invasion. When their city was attacked, they lost two members of their flock. The remaining four were able to evacuate, but...losing a member of one's family in that way inflicts a wound that never really heals.”
  2032.     She lay back in her nest of pillows, letting the tobacco do its work for a moment, Baker clearly regretting asking the question.
  2033.     “I never knew them,” she finally said, “I only knew what my parents told me about them. But I suppose they imagined me avenging them, finding a way to right the wrong somehow. All of my sisters entered the military in some capacity, and it was at the flight academy that I met Maza'xol'natuih and the others. I suppose I thought that space would be the first line of defense if the Bugs should find us here.”
  2034.     Well, that certainly went some way to explaining why Coza was such a hardass compared to the others, but Jaeger could sympathize. Boomer's death was still fresh in his mind, and he knew other people who had died an untimely death at the hands of the Bugs. When you were a soldier in the UNN, it came with the territory. But to lose a family member...parents...he couldn't imagine how that would feel. For a moment, he thanked his stars that his parents were living safely on Earth, deep in the heart of UNN space where nothing could reach them without first going through a dozen other worlds and the combined fleets of the Coalition.
  2035.     “You'll get your chance,” he said, Coza meeting his gaze across the table. “When that hive fleet shows up here, there will be hundreds of thousands of Bugs, and we're going to kill every last one of them. And when that's done, the Coalition will help you retake Kerguela, I'm certain of it. We have no choice, the planet will keep producing fleets and sending them out unless we cut them off at the source. It will require multiple carriers working in concert, and massive Martian battleships like the Kartikeya or the Shiva, they have enough firepower to punch a mile wide hole straight through the planet if they need to. It might take a few years, but you'll see that planet either back in Valbaran hands or turned to radioactive glass.”
  2036.     She nodded, her plumes flashing red as she slammed the rest of her drink and set the empty glass down on the table.
  2037.     “I would like that, Earth'nay...”
  2038.  
  2039. CHAPTER 14: LOOSENING UP
  2040.    
  2041.     They ordered another round of drinks, Maza and Jaeger trying to steer the conversation in a more lighthearted direction as the night went on. The group discussed everything from exopolitics, to the presence of bathrooms inside human dwellings, their jokes increasing in volume and decreasing in complexity the more alcohol that they consumed. Ayau engaged Baker in a long conversation about the Krell, the pilot telling her everything that he knew on the subject, fascinating her with stories about the giant specimens that were said to exist in remote regions of their homeworld. She let him stroke her feathers again too, Baker laughing with his tiny beverage in hand as he ran his fingers through the downy covering on her tail. Xico, as it turned out, had some experience in the field of engineering. She finally took the opportunity to pick Jaeger's brain about the finer aspects of UNN ship designs, marveling at the footage of battleships that he had on his phone. Even Tacka chimed in now and then, the drink loosening her scaly lips.
  2042.     To his surprise, he was actually beginning to relax and have some fun, the aliens buying the two humans as many drinks as they required to feel the effects. It reminded him of spending an evening with a group of close friends, then he realized that these were his friends. They had spent enough time together, been through so much, that he felt comfortable describing them as such.
  2043.     After a while, the table was littered with empty glasses, the bowl of tobacco almost used up as the aliens took their last puffs. Jaeger was pleasantly tipsy, while Baker was as wasted as it was possible to get on such small quantities of drink and herb, already beginning to drift off to sleep on the pile of cushions. The aliens were still very much alert and awake, on the other hand, giving Jaeger the impression that their night had only just begun.
  2044.     Coza and Maza seemed to discuss something for a minute, there were lots of flashes of colored feathers that Jaeger couldn't follow, Maza glancing in his direction every so often as the two argued. The other aliens chimed in too, but they seemed less invested. Coza pulled her communicator out of her pocket and began to tap at the touch screen. She was quite drunk, and she still seemed surly, her eyes fixed intently on the phone as she typed.
  2045.     “What's going on?” Jaeger asked, looking between the two aliens. He had never seen them disagree like this before.
  2046.     “If this really is my last night alive, then I want some company,” Coza muttered. “I'm calling Yaotl'mal'atzi.”
  2047.     Jaeger looked to Maza for an explanation, unable to remember the complicated name.
  2048.     “He's the nurse that you met at the hospital,” she explained. “I'm of the opinion that we already have company, but this is what Coza'ma'lotl wants...”
  2049.      It was interesting to see that disagreements could happen within the tightly-knit flocks, though the alcohol was certainly playing a part. Jaeger had gotten the impression that Coza had meant something quite different by 'company', or perhaps Maza saw him as...that kind of company?
  2050.     “He's not coming,” Coza said dejectedly, returning the phone to her pocket. “He says he has to work...”
  2051.     She leaned her head on Maza's shoulder, her friend resting an arm around her. Jaeger wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright, that they were going to prevail against the Bugs, but there was nothing that he could say to her that he hadn't said already.
  2052.     “Let's get one more round,” Maza said, whistling for the waiter.
  2053.  
  2054. ***
  2055.    
  2056.     “Is Coza going to be alright?” Jaeger asked Maza, watching as the alien drowned her sorrows in another glass of bitter liquid. Not wanting to be overheard by her friend perhaps, she got up from her seat on the cushions and walked around the table to his side, sliding in beside him.
  2057.     “Coza'ma'lotl is a little...emotional right now,” she explained. “She's also very drunk. You asked us how we would spend this night if it was our last, and I can't really fault her wanting some male company.”
  2058.     “And...how about you?” Jaeger asked. She shrugged her feathers, not really giving him much of an answer. She was avoiding the question perhaps. “So what would have happened if the male had shown up?” he continued. “Supposing that Coza took him home, would you guys all...together?”
  2059.     “It's a little more voluntary than that,” she explained. “Under normal circumstances, we'd probably all join in, have a go at him, see if we all share the same chemistry. He's pretty cute, nice smooth scales, pretty feathers. He clearly had that outcome in mind, judging by the way that he was acting back at the hospital,” she muttered as she finished off the last of her drink.
  2060.     Jaeger was a little shocked. The aliens were usually prudish when it came to such matters, but perhaps this was the alcohol and the weed talking. In any case, he kind of liked her new directness...
  2061.     “But these aren't normal circumstances?”
  2062.     She leaned forward, making sure that Baker was soundly asleep before reaching across the table to pick up Jaeger's near-empty glass, downing what was left. She hissed, her plumes flaring in yellow and purple, then set it back down on the varnished surface.
  2063.     “The nurse would make an admirable bed warmer, but I kind of had someone else in mind.”
  2064.     Jaeger felt his heart begin to beat faster, suddenly all too aware of the feeling of Maza's soft thigh pressing against him through the insubstantial fabric of her shorts. The fluttering of her feathers brushed his cheek, tickling his skin, and he looked down to see her staring up at him. He blinked, and her expression changed, becoming somehow hungry.
  2065.     “You always blink like that, do you even know what signals you're sending me?”
  2066.     “By blinking?” he asked, confused.
  2067.     “It's the behavior of a submissive male, a receptive male,” she explained with a flutter of embarrassment. “You're saying 'come flirt with me, come seduce me', it signals that you're attracted to me.”
  2068.     “Humans have to blink regularly,” he laughed, “I'm not doing it on purpose.”
  2069.     “Yeah, I figured as much, but it's still maddening.” She stared at the empty glasses for a few moments, summoning the courage to continue, then shuffled a little closer to him as she began to speak again. He felt her warmth through his uniform, one of her hands resting on his thigh as he sat cross-legged, Maza's tail coiling and fidgeting on the cushions beside her like a restless snake.
  2070.     “Where you come from, in your Coalition,” she began. “Do different people...do different species get together? I remember you always made fun of your friend, you called him Scratcher, you implied that he had slept with a Borealis'nay. Is that right?”
  2071.     “We...some people...do,” he replied stiffly. “I can't say that it's looked down upon at all. People have their preferences, of course, but-”
  2072.     “Have you ever been a relationship with an alien?” she asked. Straight to the point, he'd have to a be lot drunker than he was right now not to see where this line of questioning was leading.
  2073.     “No, but I've thought about it. I suppose everyone has once or twice.”
  2074.     “How do they make it work, being so different? How could a Krell'nay and an Earth'nay...fit together?”
  2075.     “I guess they just do what they can.”
  2076.     “I usually let Coza do the flirting,” Maza muttered, “I'm not very good at it myself. I tend to...ramble. But theoretically speaking...if I were to tell you that I'd like to take you home tonight and try to make it work, that I wanted to have you, what would you say? Am I too drunk to think straight, or is there something more than friendship between us?”
  2077.     “I'd say...let's do what we can.”
  2078.     Her sheaths shot out as straight as a board, and her feathers exploded into a display of pink and yellow, Maza trying in vain to suppress them and struggling to keep her cool. She leaned against him, wrapping both of her arms around his bicep and pressing her face against his shoulder. He was so much larger than she was, it was about as much of an embrace as she could muster.
  2079.     “I feel like I'm swimming,” she chuckled drunkenly, “and it's not the drink. How are we going to...I guess it doesn't matter, we can figure it out as we go. You're so strange and alien, yet some parts of you are so familiar, it's like my brain gets all muddled. You're cute like a male, you have the short snout, the smooth skin...yet you don't act like a male. It's like being attracted to a female, who looks male, but behaves like...oh maybe I'm overthinking it.”
  2080.     “I think if we start asking too many questions, we're going to get confused pretty quickly,” Jaeger chuckled. “Just go with your gut, or your heart. Whichever one your culture references.”
  2081.     “Do you like me...in that way?” Maza asked. “I was so afraid that you wouldn't be attracted to me, that I would be too alien for you. You don't seem at all surprised to hear any of this.”
  2082.     “It's not as if this is coming out of nowhere,” he replied, “you've been flashing pink feathers at me for days. You must have known that I'd figure it out eventually.”
  2083.     “I guess I underestimated the Earth'nay,” she chuckled.
  2084.     “And yeah, I'm attracted to you.”
  2085.     Were they really going to do this? He didn't even know what parts she had, if they would even be compatible. But ever since that moment in the showers on the Rorke, he had felt a kind of tension building between them, their mutual ignorance of one another's cultures and customs preventing it from coming to a head. Finally, those feelings were out in the open. The barriers had come down, and they had reached an understanding. He didn't care if they were rushing into things, if neither one of them really had any idea how it was going to work, or if they'd even be alive in a week's time. It felt right, he wanted this.
  2086.     Jaeger realized that her flock were staring at them intently. Xico and Ayau had toothy grins on their faces, while Tacka was looking between them a little apprehensively. Coza was resting her jaw in her hand as she leaned on the table, watching the exchange drunkenly, circling the rim of her empty glass with one of her clawed fingers.
  2087.     “Took you long enough,” she muttered, “I don't know why you waited all this time rather than just...” She hiccuped, seeming to surprise herself for a moment, “...telling him what you wanted. This is why I always have to do the flirting, because you can't take charge when it comes to males.”
  2088.     “We are a flock after all,” Maza said as she gazed up at Jaeger, “we must reach consensus if you and I are to take this any further.” She turned her eyes to her companions, waiting for them to speak.
  2089.     “Of course we can take him to bed,” Ayau said, “you've had your eye on him practically since we set foot on the Rorke. He's so strange, exotic. It'll be fun.”
  2090.     “Besides,” Xico added, her violet eyes fixed intently on his own. “He is a fine specimen, it would be...illuminating to study his alien anatomy more closely. Intimately...”
  2091.     Coza spoke next, leaning back against the cushions and crossing her arms as she appraised the human. She made a show of looking him up and down, making Jaeger feel like he was being subjected to the cold stare of a father shortly before taking his daughter to the prom.
  2092.     “He'll do. All that matters to me is that my bed is full tonight.”
  2093.     Finally, Maza looked to Tacka, the meek alien nodding her head after a moment of hesitation.
  2094.     It seemed like everyone approved, even Coza, a fresh surge of excitement rising in Jaeger's belly along with a twinge of apprehension. What was this going to be like with all five of them joining in? He hadn't been in a relationship for a while, never mind one with an alien, and he had never done anything with more than one partner before. It was pointless to speculate, he would just have to wait and see.
  2095.     The drinks had all been drunk, and the tobacco had been smoked, it was time to leave. Maza rose from her seat at the table, taking him by the hand and coiling her feather sheath around his wrist possessively, guiding him towards the door.
  2096.     “Hang on,” he said, “I need to help Baker along.”
  2097.     She released him, and he struggled to get Baker out of his seat, his friend just coherent enough to walk with a little help.
  2098.     “Come on, Baker. Let's get you home, I think you've had enough Valbaran culture for one night.”
  2099.  
  2100. CHAPTER 15: REACHING CONSENSUS
  2101.    
  2102.     When they arrived back at the flock's dwelling, Jaeger lay Baker down on the shag carpet in the main dome, putting a cushion beneath his head and leaving him to sleep off his overindulgence. He couldn't blame him too much, they had been celebrating, and Baker had spent months on the Rorke where his consumption of alcohol was strictly moderated. He would be comfortable enough here while Jaeger and the flock occupied the bedroom...
  2103.     “So...how does this work?” he asked, turning to the flock. They were all bunched up together, craning their long necks to peer at him. Talk about being put in the spotlight...
  2104.     “What do Earth'nay usually do?” Maza asked.
  2105.     “What do Valbarans usually do?” he replied.
  2106.     “I think we should take your advice and just follow our guts, or our hearts,” she chuckled. She took his hand again, her grip like iron, and guided him over towards the door to the bedroom. He ducked under the low doorway, feeling the plush surface of the room-spanning mattress beneath his feet. She released him in the center of the domed room, her flock following behind them, Coza closing the door as she was the last to enter. The room was plunged into a vaguely red gloom, much like the lounge, and once again the hanging curtains that decorated the walls gave him the same vibe.
  2107.     Jaeger felt like he was being surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves, the aliens forming a circle around him, peering up at him as their violet eyes reflected what little light there was. They whispered and warbled in their native language, indecipherable to Jaeger, flashing their feathers and scheming as he waited for them to make the next move. The females were the dominant sex in their species, the courtship dance with the nurse back at the hospital had really hammered that fact home, and so he should probably let them take the lead. When in Rome, as Baker liked to say...
  2108.     “I want to see what you look like,” Maza said, stepping closer to him. She was so short, he had to look directly down at her as she rested her hands on his stomach and pressed her snout up against his chest. She reached up and gripped the zipper on his suit between her thumb and one of her two fingers, pulling it down slowly until it reached his waist. He shrugged it off, then kicked off his shoes and stepped out of the lower half, standing before the aliens wearing only his white shirt and his shorts.
  2109.     She wanted to pull his shirt over his head, but she couldn't reach, Jaeger doing it in her stead. He tugged it off and discarded it with a little difficulty, it was stuck to his skin due to the heat and humidity. Before the garment had even hit the mattress, Maza's small hands were back at work. She traced the contours of his muscles beneath his damp skin, Jaeger flexing and twitching at her touch.
  2110.     “When you took us into the shower back on your carrier,” she began, her eyes fixed on his belly as she stroked it with her hand. Her skin, or rather scales, were soft and smooth. They weren't like the armored, overlapping scales of a Krell, which were arranged like medieval armor. These were made up of a tiny mosaic of shiny scales, minute, irregular squares and hexagons that interlocked perfectly to create a surface that was as flush as varnished wood. “I thought that you were propositioning me,” she laughed. “I didn't know much about your customs yet, I saw that all of the alien races on the Rorke lived together, male and female alike. Sordid thoughts ran through my head. What if this was how the rest of the Galaxy behaved, what if they expected the same of us? Had this vessel, packed with strange and exotic aliens, jumped into our system with the expectation that we would all make love as if that was their way of greeting us? I quickly discovered that I was wrong, of course,” she continued, her warm breath blowing on his skin and her hands crawling down towards the bulge in his shorts. “But for a moment, I was ready for that to be the case, I was willing...”
  2111.     She hooked a finger beneath the elastic waistband of his shorts, Ayau and Xico flanking her and leaning closer to get a better look. Tacka was lounging on the cushions nearby, observing them from a distance, while Coza was standing to one side with her legs locked and her arms crossed as she glared at him. She was a little unsteady on her feet, she had hit the drink and the tobacco a lot harder than her sisters. While everyone else had been drinking recreationally, Coza certainly seemed to be trying to drown her troubles.
  2112.     Maza slid his shorts down to his thighs, slowly exposing his member, already swelling and heavy with blood as it bounced free. Their eyes widened, apparently surprised by what they saw, Maza glancing up at him as she gently lifted it in her palm.
  2113.     “There's only one!” Xico exclaimed, her eyes fixed intently on his growing member. “It's covered in skin, it's so large and...vascular...”
  2114.     “It's getting heavier,” Maza whispered, “swelling with blood. It's beating like a heart in my hand.”
  2115.     “What's this?” Ayau asked, reaching below and cupping his balls in her palm. Jaeger twitched, the fluffy Valbaran grinning at his response. “It's sensitive.”
  2116.     Their explorations caused him to reach full mast, rising out of Maza's hand, his organ standing erect in front of them and twitching softly with every pulse of blood that rushed through it. It was almost as long and as thick as Maza's forearm, her eyes slowly crawling up its length as her feathers flashed in a shade of deep pink.
  2117.     “Is it...okay?” Jaeger stammered. “I mean, can we...will it fit?”
  2118.     “I guess we'll find out,” Xico said, smirking as she looked pointedly between Jaeger and Maza. His would-be lover rested her head just below his chest, looking down at his member as she played with it in her hand. She ran her fingers from the base to the tip, pushing it down gently, then letting it spring back up again.
  2119.     “It's so smooth,” she muttered, transfixed. Every touch of her fingers brought with it a jolt of electrical pleasure that coursed up through his body, his breathing growing heavier as she inadvertently teased him. Ayau combed her fingers through his pubic hair, cocking her head.
  2120.     “It's course and curly,” she said, “nothing like the fur on his head.”
  2121.     Maza stepped back, a distinctly eager look in her eye as she stared up at him, fumbling with the clasps on her tunic. She loosened the collar just enough that she could get it over her large head, the sheaths that extended out of the back of her skull getting in the way. Beneath it, she was wearing what looked like a black tube top, the same color and style as her impossibly form-fitting shorts. Jaeger had been wondering if the aliens had boobs or not, and as she pulled the elastic material away, he got his answer.
  2122.     Two firm, pert breasts fell free of the material as she pulled it over her head, bouncing gently with the motion. Her pink nipples stood erect, and she covered the globes with her forearm as she let her top fall to the floor, the soft flesh deforming around her limb enticingly. They were perfect handfuls, covered in the same green scales as the rest of her body, which gave them a waxy sheen under the light. They were slightly discolored, as was her stomach, the scales there a lighter shade like the underbelly of a lizard.
  2123.     Twin rows of chiseled abdominal muscles protruded from beneath her skin, firm and tight, shifting as she moved. Now he could get a better look at the hourglass shape of her inhumanly wide hips, the anchors that attached her powerful legs to the rest of her little body. She was still wearing her shorts, the thin, black fabric clinging to her like a second skin. It almost looked like the material that one would use to make swimwear. Her thighs were longer and proportionally thicker than those of a human, joining to digitigrade legs, bony and sinewy below the ankle joint. Despite her obvious physical fitness, she was still plump in all the right places, her curves drawing his gaze and seeming to guide it across her voluptuous figure.
  2124.     Maza angled her thick tail downwards and then slid off her shorts, stepping out of them to reveal that she was wearing nothing beneath. Now Jaeger could see that the discoloration of her scales extended to her inner thighs and down the underside of her tail, almost as if designed to draw his eyes to her most sensitive regions. Between her legs, she had a mound as smooth and as polished as the rest of her, a pair of subtle lips that were tinted a familiar pink just visible.
  2125.     She released her breasts, standing before him with everything on display, as if waiting for his approval.
  2126.     “Do you...like me?”
  2127.     As if the incessant pulsing of his erection wasn't enough of an answer for her, he took a step forward, reaching down to grip her comely hips. His fingers immediately sank into her yielding fat, the span of his hands large enough that his thumbs very nearly met across her belly. What had looked like muscle was actually flesh as soft as melted butter, her scales smooth like the most exquisite silk. His member brushed up against her abs, her small boobs pressing against his torso as he pulled her short frame into him. She angled her face to look up at him, her snout only just managing to brush his chin.
  2128.     He slid a hand down to cup her ass, taking a generous handful of more of her delicate fat, the alien cooing in a blend of surprise and delight. Beneath it lurked muscle so springy and perfectly rounded that if he were to lift her up and drop her on her butt, he felt certain that she would bounce like a basketball. His fingers roamed lower, her stout thighs just as firm, muscles like steel cables sheathed in a layer of plumpness that he found impossible to resist. His digits sank down to the first joint, it was like kneading freshly-baked dough.
  2129.     “I didn't realize that Earth'nay males would be so...assertive,” she whispered, standing on her toes and reaching up to gently nibble at his neck. He felt the points of her needle-like teeth, but she had scaly lips too, mouthing and sucking as she wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled herself tighter against him. It sandwiched his member between the two of them, the bumps of her sculpted abs rubbing against the sensitive underside.
  2130.     He slid his hands up her back, exploring her, tracing the furrow of her spine with his fingertips. Her scaly skin was so inviting, it was as smooth as polished metal and slightly moist, likely due to the humidity in the air. The contrast between fat and muscle made her irresistible to the touch, he wouldn't have been able to keep his hands off her if he had tried, it was like she was wrapped in a layer of soft velvet. He would have assumed that scaly skin would be coarse and dry, but that wasn't the case at all.
  2131.     “Is this how you kiss?” he chuckled, her pointed teeth tickling his neck.
  2132.     “Does it not feel good to you?” she asked, pausing for a moment.
  2133.     “It feels good,” he whispered. He cupped his hands under her rump, lifting her off the ground like she weighed nothing, Maza's feathers flaring in yellow and pink as she laughed excitedly. He brought her up to head height, the alien crossing her arms behind his neck and closing her powerful thighs around his waist like a vice. Her long, serpentine tail coiled around him too, giving her enough purchase that he scarcely needed to support her weight.
  2134.     He buried his face in the nape of her neck, feeling her grip on him tighten and hearing a sigh escape her lips as he planted a kiss on her shoulder. He crawled slowly higher, nibbling and mouthing softly as he roamed up her long, flexible throat. It seemed to tickle her, and she squirmed in his arms, her dull claws scratching at his naked back. He could feel the details of her tiny scales beneath his tongue where he dragged it across her skin, her taste was neutral, but she had a pleasant wet leather scent about her.
  2135.     Jaeger reached down and pulled his shorts all the way off, Maza clinging to him as he walked her over towards the nearest wall, where the cushions were piled high. He knelt and released her onto the pillows, the little alien lying spreadeagled beneath him, the rapid rise and fall of her chest making her breasts wobble. He reached down and enclosed one of them in his hand, it was small enough that he could encompass it entirely, her hard nipple pressing into his palm. He kneaded and squeezed, her flesh as malleable as cookie batter, the pert globe springing back into its original shape when he released it. She arched her spine, squirming on the mattress as he teased her, his fingers seeking out the sensitive breast tissue beneath the layer of buttery fat.
  2136.     He planted another sucking kiss on her neck, then began to crawl his lips down towards her chest, pausing to catch one of her nipples in his mouth. He mauled the adjacent breast with his fingers as he drew on the firm nub of flesh, sucking and chewing gently, pinching it between his lips and his teeth. Her tail waved back and forth on the mattress beneath him, batting his thighs, her small frame writhing as he circled her nipple with his tongue.
  2137.     “Like that,” she gasped, sinking her fingers into his hair and taking desperate handfuls. “That feels good...”
  2138.     After lingering for a moment, he roamed downwards, dragging his tongue across her six pack and following the deep channels that they carved in her abdomen. Droplets of moisture from the humid air around them clung to her shining body like beads of sweat, but there was no taste of salt, it was simply water. Her taut muscles bulged and flexed where his lips roamed, the alien tensing and shuddering as he drew shapes on her belly. Her scales were even softer and more delicate here, nearly indistinguishable from human skin, and she seemed more sensitive too. He slid the tip of his tongue into her navel, then realized that she had a navel.
  2139.     Breasts, a navel, all features that suggested live birth. Could they be placental reptiles, or birds, or whatever animal group they most closely resembled? Warm-blooded reptiles with feathers that lactated and gave birth to live young? It was like discovering the Platypus all over again.
  2140.     Maza was shivering like a leaf, perhaps their sharp teeth and long snouts precluded a lot of the sex acts that were par for the course in human lovemaking. She still had her hands in his hair, combing it softly, he could feel her dull claws raking his scalp as he continued his journey downwards. She seemed to enjoy the texture, tugging on it as he took a firm grip on her hips. He lifted her butt off the mattress, she was so light that she was trivial to hold up, Maza practically hanging upside-down with her shoulders and head resting on the cushions as he brought his lips towards her thighs. He doted on them where the scales were lighter and softer, peppering them with sucking kisses and gentle bites, deliberately avoiding the plump lips that lay between them as he teased her. Her clawed toes curled, and her tail whipped back and forth, her fingers gripping the mattress beneath her.
  2141.     He finally relented, Maza looking up at him imploringly, and he turned his attention to her loins. They were not dissimilar from those of a human woman, puffy and swollen with arousal, the same pale color as her belly. Here, however, there was glistening, pink flesh peeking out from between the folds. He watched as a trickle of clear fluid escaping to slide down her tail. He had been expecting some kind of cloaca, but there was a pink bud further down her tail, indicating that she was arranged more like a mammal.
  2142.     Unable to resist, he dragged his tongue between her puffy labia, her juices making her flesh wet and slippery. She tasted sour, tangy, it was an oddly pleasant flavor. His mouth was large enough that he could get it around her entire mound, sucking as he raked her loins with his roving organ, coating every crease of her burning vulva. Her spine arched again, her thighs trembling and her tail coiling tightly around one of his thighs as a high pitched whine slipped past her pursed lips.
  2143.     “There!” she gasped, “don't stop!”
  2144.     He needed no encouragement, pushing his tongue deeper, tracing her delicate folds as he drew softly on her lips. He could feel the heat that she radiated, almost hot enough to scald his tongue, her muscles flexing and twitching with every glance and stroke. He pulled back, parting the fleshy labia with his fingers, looking down to examine her intimate anatomy as she covered her face in embarrassment. Her slit was small compared to what he was familiar with, and her twitching, winking opening was tiny enough that it looked like he would struggle to get two fingers inside her. It leaked a steady stream of colorless, syrupy fluid that made her rosy vulva glisten, dripping down her tail in a way that made it look like droplets of dew. It made his mouth water, her wet leather scent goading him on. There was no clitoris that he could see, but it didn't seem to diminish her sensitivity at all.
  2145.     He dove back in, licking and mouthing, the small size of her loins meaning that he could cover more of them with every stroke. Her vulva was smaller than the flat of his tongue, Jaeger lapping at her like an ice cream cone as his saliva blended with her tangy fluid. It almost tasted like citrus fruit, but a little weaker, he felt like he could keep this up all day.
  2146.     Xico and Ayau hovered nearby, watching intently as he turned their friend into a moaning, shuddering mess. Xico was chewing absent-mindedly on one of her claws, while Ayau had snuck a hand between her legs, rubbing slowly as Maza thrust her hips against Jaeger's mouth.
  2147.     She doubled over as he pushed the tip of his tongue inside her, feeling her silken walls grip him tightly, her abs bulging from beneath her skin beautifully as they tensed up. She let herself fall back to the mattress, groaning as he buried his organ deeper, parting her insides as they spasmed around him.
  2148.     The flesh that lined her tunnel was so pillowy and slimy, moving ceaselessly, writhing and contracting violently as if trying to tear his tongue from his skull. Her clenching passage felt like satin that had been soaked in honey, the taut muscles massaging him in waves.
  2149.     Maza seemed to be in a state of pure bliss. Her eyelids drooped as she lay on the cushions, her scaly lips pulling back to expose her teeth in a kind of snarl, her brow furrowing when he dragged his tongue across her sensitive walls.
  2150.     When he drew back, his lips were linked to hers by a sagging web of clear fluid, which fell to slide down the underside of her tail. He brought a finger up to her opening, circling her spasming entrance and wetting it with her slimy emissions.
  2151.     “Tell me if this gets uncomfortable,” he said, pressing it inside her. It sank up to the first joint, then the second, Maza whining as her slick muscles seized around it. He wouldn't have been able to slide any deeper had it not been for her copious fluids, spilling around his digit and glazing his skin in a slippery sheen. He reached the knuckle, burying his entire finger inside of her, Maza shivering as he brushed what felt like the reaches of her tunnel. It would have been painful for a human, but Maza didn't complain or pull away.
  2152.     God, she was tight. He didn't know if sex was going to work between them, he might simply be too large for her. He began to slide his finger slowly in and out, her loins sucking on him, sticking to his skin as they created a vacuum. The feeling of her silken walls gliding against him was wonderful, a twinge of disappointment flaring in his belly as he considered that he might not be able to feel these luxuriant muscles wrapping around his cock.
  2153.     “On the roof towards the back,” she mumbled through her haze of arousal, “you should feel a firm knot. Rub it...”
  2154.     Jaeger changed the angle of his finger as he searched for it, probing the roof of her tunnel, feeling her tighten and tremble when he located it. There was a firm bud of flesh inside her, almost like an uvula, the little dangling thing in the back of your throat. Judging by the drawn-out moan that she uttered when he rubbed it, it was rich in nerve endings. Was this the Valbaran equivalent of a clitoris? It was so far inside of her, evolved perhaps to encourage deep penetration, increasing the chances of successful insemination.
  2155.     The backs of her knees were resting across his shoulders now, and her tail had a tight grip around his midsection, leaving both of his hands free as he no longer needed to support her. He placed one hand on her belly just above her mound and began to thrust his finger in and out of her, brushing her sweet spot in a way that made her clench her fists and buck violently. She was warbling in her own language, it sounded like bird song, but whatever she was saying it seemed to be drawing in her flock. Xico and Ayau were close enough that he could feel their breath on his forearms, watching intently as his alien digit splayed Maza's delicate flesh. Even Coza had elected to move a little closer, her feathers flaring in pink as she watched her friend squirm in his grasp.
  2156.     A violent tremor passed through Maza's small frame, every muscle in her body seeming to tense up, her grip on his finger becoming so tight that it was almost painful. She bared her teeth, her eyes snapping shut and her plumes rising in a rainbow of seemingly random colors and patterns. It was like he had short-circuited her, her feathers shifting and fluttering in waves of color, her spine arching and her tail constricting around his waist like an anaconda. Jaeger kept up the pace as he drew out every last throb of her orgasm, her insides gripping him like a fist as the tingling pleasure forced adorable mewls and whines from her lips, her syrupy juices flowing around his buried digit and hanging from her loins in glistening strands.
  2157.     He slowly lowered her down onto the mattress as she relaxed her hold on him, her little chest pumping like a pair of bellows as she rode out the last wracking pangs of her climax. She seemed exhausted, and he had to remind himself that these aliens didn't have the stamina that humans had, she would probably need time to recover before they could continue.
  2158.     She looked up at him, her eyes unfocused, laughing giddily as she slowly ran her hands across her chest and belly. She seemed more drunk now than she had been back at the lounge, high on a far more powerful drug than any plant fiber could produce. He considered lying down beside her, holding her, running his hands across her still receptive body as she recovered the strength to go again. But before he could do so, he found himself on his back.
  2159.     Ayau and Xico had pounced on him like a pair of lions bringing down a zebra, the little aliens incredibly strong and fast when they needed to be. Ayau was holding his wrists in her hands, pinning his arms above his head, the tentacle-like feather sheaths on her forearms coiling around them to tie them together. Even the slim muscles contained with the sheaths were like steel, he couldn't have freed himself if he had tried.
  2160.     Xico, meanwhile, was crouched between his parted thighs with her eyes fixed on his prominent erection. She cocked her head at it curiously, reaching down to run her hands across his exposed glans, and feeling him twitch. As he watched, she shed her loose-fitting tunic and slipped out of her shorts, her body nearly identical to Maza's save for the darker shade of her scales.
  2161.     She began to stroke his member, running her fingers up and down his shaft, her scales so smooth and fine that it felt like she was wearing silk gloves. Jaeger relaxed, letting her do her thing, her violet eyes fixed on his organ as she examined it intently. Ayau peered over his prone body, watching her friend as she held Jaeger's arms steady. It was a little unnecessary, he wasn't going to try to escape, but whatever made the willful creatures happy...
  2162.     “A single shaft,” Xico said, perhaps trying to mask her arousal by feigning a kind of clinical detachment. “Large...obviously, with no external channel for the, uh...semen to flow through. It looks like the channel is situated inside the organ, judging by the small opening at the end...”
  2163.     She ran the tip of her finger around his glans, making him shiver, her warm breath blowing on the head.
  2164.     “Sensitive, smooth. Judging by the way that it...throbs, it can be assumed that it inflates with blood, unlike the eversion process used by Val'ba'ra'nay reproductive organs. There seems to be a covering of nerve-rich skin that protects the underlying flesh.”
  2165.     “Uh...what are you talking about, exactly?” Jaeger asked.
  2166.     “I'm making some...observations,” she replied hesitantly, still holding his pulsing shaft in her palm. It was massive in comparison to her, she could barely get her hand around it. “The reproductive organ of a Val'ba'ra'nay male is made up of two shafts, it's housed inside the body, everting during arousal.” She ran her finger from the base of his shaft to the tip, making him buck. “There's a channel on the outside of the organ where the emission flows, and there's no covering of skin.”
  2167.     “So...they have two cocks?”
  2168.     “N-no, it's a single organ, but it has two shafts.”
  2169.     “This is an odd kind of foreplay,” he mumbled.
  2170.     “As the first Val'ba'ra'nay with any kind of technical expertise to examine an Earth'nay so...closely, it's my duty to make observations,” she said. “To make a record of your...anatomy...”
  2171.     “And what technical background do you have, exactly?” he asked.
  2172.     “Uh...flight engineer...”
  2173.     “I see.”
  2174.     She pulled back his foreskin to expose his glans fully, gazing at his shining head with what could only be described as lust. She bit her scaly lip, then wet them with her pink tongue, beginning a slow and rhythmic stroking. He didn't know what a Valbaran penis looked like exactly, but the shape and texture of his member seemed to encourage the alien to run her hands up and down it, tracing the protruding veins with the tips of her dull claws. She was focused on it so intently, her nose not an inch from the tip as she watched it jump and pulse. A bead of his excitement leaked out, and she opened her mouth, her flexible tongue snaking out to lap at the clear fluid.
  2175.     It was like wet velvet, a shiver running up his spine and making his head spin as her damp flesh dragged across his tender glans. She noted his reaction, her feathers puffing up in a rosy shade of pink. It could be the Valbaran equivalent of a blush, or it could be a more overt display of arousal, he wasn't entirely sure yet.
  2176.     “The subject responds strongly to stimulation,” she whispered, “his fluids taste salty...”
  2177.     “He likes it,” Ayau chimed in from somewhere above his head, “lick him again...”
  2178.     Her tongue was not very wide, but it was long and agile, the tip tapered into a point. It was about the same length as her snout, maybe eight or nine inches long and scarcely one inch wide. As she opened her jaws to reveal her rows of needle-like teeth, he felt a pang of apprehension. That toothy maw was not suited to oral sex, not even slightly. As she lowered her snout down towards his member, she was careful to keep her teeth clear of him, coiling her slippery tongue around his shaft as she breathed warm air on it.
  2179.     Xico couldn't suck, but she could certainly lick, her dexterous tongue flicking across his glans and painting his shaft with her viscous saliva as he struggled to keep from bucking. It was death by a thousand cuts, every glance sending a jolt ecstasy tearing through him, fireworks exploding in his brain. She kept up her stroking all the while, pumping her little hands up and down his length, her touch made slick and warm by her spit.
  2180.     “Does it feel good?” Ayau chirped, her eager face appearing above him as she looked down at his reddening cheeks. “You're going all pink.”
  2181.     “Yeah,” he said, his eyelids drooping as Xico swirled her tongue around his tip.
  2182.     He felt Ayau release him from her grasp, the excitable alien quickly stripping off her clothes and draping herself over him, giving him a kind of upside-down hug as she rubbed her scaly cheek on his belly. Her thighs were to the right of his head, her arms wrapped around his chest as she nuzzled and giggled.
  2183.     “You're so big! So smooth!”
  2184.     Her entire body was coated in downy proto-feathers, save for her hands, her lower legs, and her face. It was so fluffy, it really did feel like fur, tickling his naked skin as she brushed against him. He could feel her breasts as they squashed against his chest, those too coated in a layer of feathery down the same beige color as her exposed scales. He felt her nibble and lick softly, their version of a kiss, her tongue flicking into his navel as Xico kept up her maddening 'investigations'.
  2185.     Ayau swung one of her legs over his face, the base of her fluffy tail resting on his forehead as she pushed her loins up against his chin, her upper body still lying on his chest like he was a giant inflatable pool animal.
  2186.     “Do me too,” she said, patting his forehead with her tail as if she needed to get his attention. “Like you did for Maza'xol'natuih, make me feel good too.”
  2187.     He raised his hands and sank them into her ass, feeling her muscles tense, and hearing her coo excitedly as he delved his fingers into her velvety flesh. Just like Maza, her rump was packed with springy muscle. He could have bounced a penny off her butt, and it was all cloaked in a layer of inviting fat that was as squishy as memory foam. Ayau had her feather covering too, it felt like the feathers that you might find on a baby bird or the ones that were used to stuff pillows. It gave her an extra layer of softness, the sensation so novel and strange that he couldn't help but comb it with his digits as he kneaded her round cheeks.
  2188.     She closed her thighs around his face, her tail draped over his head, giving him little choice other than to take in her feminine scent. There was still that wet leather smell, but there was something a little thicker there too. It reminded him of sinking his face into his ex's hair after she had just gotten out of the shower, the aromas of soaps and the natural scent of her body mingling.
  2189.     Ayau's mound wasn't bald and scaly, it was surrounded by fluffy feathers, already damp and matted with her leaking anticipation. It was far softer and more delicate than pubic hair, however. It felt pleasant against his cheeks as he pressed forward and dragged his tongue between her lips. He gripped her ass as she shivered, resting her head on his stomach as he began to lick, he could feel her breath on his cock even as Xico massaged it.
  2190.     “Oh, that feels good,” Ayau whined. “You have to try this, Xico'hte'otl, it's so smooth and warm...” Her friend didn't reply, still transfixed by his erection. “Does it taste good?” Ayau asked, Jaeger shuddering as he felt a second tongue glance his shaft. “His skin is salty. It's smooth though, damp, he has no scales.” She rubbed her cheek on his belly again, apparently enjoying the texture of his skin as much he enjoyed her feathery covering. “I think we should keep him, he won't get tired out like a Val'ba'ra'nay male.”
  2191.     “Keep me?” Jaeger asked, his voice muffled by her rump.
  2192.     “Don't slow down,” she grumbled, leaning back so that she was sitting on his face and cutting off his complaints. She wriggled to get comfortable, kneading one of her furry breasts with her hand as she planted the other on his chest for balance, her tangy fluids leaking down his cheeks and making her downy feathers stick to his skin.
  2193.     Maza seemed to have recovered enough strength to join in again, Jaeger hearing her chuckle as he felt another hand on his member.
  2194.     “It feels so alive,” she muttered, Jaeger unable to see her due to the feathery butt that was currently occupying his field of view. “It's always throbbing and flexing, what do you think it would feel like inside of you?”
  2195.     “It would certainly be an...enlightening experience,” Xico replied, pausing her clumsy blowjob for a moment so that she could speak.
  2196.     Jaeger kept up his licking, Ayau squirming occasionally as he teased her satin folds, pushing his tongue deep inside her as he had done for Maza. Her tail waved back and forth in an almost absent-minded fashion, tickling his forehead as her downy plumage brushed it. He couldn't keep his hands off her ass and thighs, the chiseled muscle shifting beneath the pudgy fat in a way that he found irresistible.
  2197.     Xico's tongue was joined by Maza's, he could feel her resting her weight on his hip as she leaned forward to reach his shaft, her pink organ snaking out of her jaws to stroke his skin. If she was bothered by the presence of her friend's bubbling saliva, she didn't show it, the aliens certainly had very intimate relationships within their flock. He bucked as his brain sparked and fizzed, the presence of two tongues and two pairs of hands doubling the intensity of the sensations, like his nerves had been kicked into overdrive. There was so much warmth and wetness, the two Valbarans kneading and massaging as they coated his skin with flurries of licks and scaly kisses. An orgasm was boiling up inside him like a volcano threatening to erupt, he couldn't take much more of it.
  2198.     The aliens seemed to notice that his rump was rising from the mattress, his muffled breathing becoming ragged, and his thrusting irregular. Ayau shifted, he felt her little hands rest on his belly as she leaned closer, laughing excitedly as she added her own tongue to the collective effort. Every delicate stroke of that wet, velvet flesh against his tender organ made his head spin. One of them was sneaking the tapered tip of their tongue beneath his foreskin and circling, it felt divine, it was enough to make his toes curl.
  2199.     “He's close,” Ayau chuckled, the energetic little alien seeming to see the whole encounter as a kind of game. “I wonder what will happen when he...”
  2200.     Someone cupped his balls in their hands, another dragging the flat of their tongue across the sensitive spot beneath his glans, his climax surging forth like a dam breaking. There was a jolt of pleasure so intense that it forced his eyes closed, the muscles in his abdomen contracting as they forced a thick, cloudy rope of his emission from his body. His member bounced and jumped, the aliens pulling back in alarm, save for Xico who he had to assume was observing intently. He could still feel her crouched between his thighs, even if all that he could see was Ayau's rear.
  2201.     The searing pleasure made him see stars, his body pumping out hot wads of his ejaculate, falling to cling to his thighs and belly as the aliens let it flow. When he eventually relaxed back down onto the mattress, the involuntary spasming of his hips ceasing, Ayau slid off his face. She was snickering to herself, clearly amused by something, and Jaeger wiped her juices from his mouth as he propped himself up on his elbows.
  2202.     Xico was perched between his parted thighs, her hands resting around his still twitching cock, her face and chest draped in gelatinous strands of his pearly semen. There had been a lot of it, he hadn't exactly had much time to relieve himself lately, and her small stature only enhanced the effect. It almost looked like someone had taken a pastry bag full of frosting to her.
  2203.     He began to apologize, then stopped, watching as she caught one of the dangling strings that was hanging from her snout with her tongue. She ran a finger through the clumps that were sticking to her scaly chest, smearing them, pulling her hand away and watching the sagging rope that it created break and fall to her thighs. Ayau was laughing, and Maza was lying at his side, smirking at him.
  2204.     Xico met his gaze with drooping eyelids, bringing her finger to her mouth as gravity made the mess slowly slide down her flat belly, a lingering pulse of pleasure tearing through Jaeger's afterglow at the lurid sight.
  2205.     “Impressive...volume,” she muttered, struggling to maintain her facade of clinical detachment. “It's so thick and...hot...”
  2206.     “Imagine what that would feel like welling up inside of you,” Ayau muttered, chewing on one of her claws as she gazed at Xico. She shuffled closer to her, scraping some of the mess from Xico's modest bust, the alien shivering as her companion's finger glanced her nipple. She let it dangle, watching it wobble, Jaeger still at full mast.
  2207.     “It's sticky,” Xico warned in a breathy voice that betrayed her arousal, “don't get it on your feathers.”
  2208.     He noticed that both Tacka and Coza were watching from afar. The former seemed to be keeping her distance, while Coza looked like a neighborhood dog viewing a barbecue through a chicken wire fence. She obviously wanted to join in desperately, but perhaps her pride didn't allow it.
  2209.     “Which one of us is going to try first?” Ayau asked, glancing at his erection. He knew what she meant, Jaeger was so much larger than they were that actual penetration might be very difficult, if not impossible. He was actually surprised that the aliens were willing to attempt it at all.
  2210.     “Hang on, I need some downtime,” Jaeger said. “Give me ten minutes.”
  2211.     “Good, then you have time to finish me off,” Ayau purred. She leapt into the air like a pouncing tiger, landing with her clawed feet to either side of his head, then she crouched and brought her still dripping loins into range of his mouth. Her long tail was draped across his chest, tickling his skin as it waved back and forth. She took handfuls of his hair, guiding his lips towards hers, shivering contentedly as he closed his hands around her butt and resumed his ardent licking. He took his time, tracing every crease and fold of her sex, slow and devoted.
  2212.     When she was wet enough that her juices were dripping down his chin, his slid a finger inside her, the alien trembling and closing her thighs around his face as he brushed the sensitive bud of flesh in the depths of her tunnel that Maza had introduced him to. She ground her hips against his digit, her muscles wringing him, her pace becoming desperate and clumsy as he pushed her closer and closer to the edge. Maza and Xico were nearby, watching their friend's shivering frame as she came.
  2213.     The feathery Valbaran loosed a pained whine, then fell off him, curling up on the mattress beside his head as she trembled and cooed. Just like when Maza had climaxed, Ayau's feather sheaths went wild, flashing nonsensical colors and patterns like a broken computer monitor. She curled herself up almost into a ball, her eyes shut tightly and her hands moving between her closed thighs, riding the waves of her orgasm for as long as she could prolong it. After a solid minute of twitching and mumbling, she finally relaxed, uncurling to lie on her back on the bed as she caught her breath.
  2214.     She looked so cute that Jaeger could scarcely help himself, rolling over onto his side and wrapping an arm around her waist. He pulled her tight against his body, her feathers sticking to his damp skin, the little alien giggling as he buried his face in her fluffy neck and approximated their odd way of kissing. He slid his free hand across her belly and chest, combing her downy covering with his fingers and kneading her breasts, like stress balls in his oversized hands. She rubbed her scaly snout in his hair as he nuzzled her neck and shoulder, apparently delighted by the attention, and he felt a few aftershocks rock her beleaguered body.
  2215.     “We're definitely keeping him,” she sighed, rubbing her feathery rump against his renewed erection. He gripped her hips, the soft feathers tickling him, his every instinct demanding that he thrust his member between those round cheeks and bury it to the hilt.
  2216.     “What's the matter, spaceman?” Ayau cooed. “Want to put that big thing inside me and fill me up with your slime?”
  2217.     “Something like that,” he grumbled, and she laughed at his obvious frustration. “Looks like Maza'xol'natuih might want to try and make it work...”
  2218.     He looked up, releasing the giggling alien from his grasp as Maza walked towards him. She planted her feet to either side of his hips, a trickle of her excitement already sliding down her inner thigh. Her feathers were puffed up in pink, and her little chest was pumping, her breasts shaking enticingly with the motion. Xico too had crawled closer, she had cleaned herself off on a cushion it seemed, but there was still some obscene residue clinging to her snout and her belly. She looked ready for a show, her eyes wide as she waited with bated breath.
  2219.     “I want to try,” Maza said, staring down at him with those unblinking eyes. “Try not to buck, or you might...you know...kill me...”
  2220.     He watched as she splayed her pink opening with her two fingers, a droplet of her juices falling to wet his erection as she slowly lowered herself down towards it. Jaeger didn't know if this was going to work, but he wasn't about to tell her to stop. The prospect of feeling those impossibly soft, tight walls enclosing his most sensitive anatomy had his heart beating like a drum, and she knew her limitations far better than he did.
  2221.     Maza crouched over him, the two of them sucking in a gasp of air in unison as her rosy, satin flesh met his swollen glans. She was fever-hot, so wet that it dribbled down his shaft, his tip pressing against her tiny opening. She was trembling, perhaps from fear or arousal, or a combination of the two.
  2222.     “Go slow,” Xico warned, “take your time...”
  2223.     Ayau was lying prone beside him, her eyes following Maza's mound as it gradually slid over the head of his penis. A force like an angry fist gripped him, Maza wincing as his member opened her up, her fleshy walls parting as they rippled and clenched. It was like her body was fighting him for every millimeter, yet her insides were drenched in her syrupy fluids, their texture like the most luxurious silk as they raked across his exposed glans. Harsh, raw pleasure coursed through him, and he dug his fingers into the mattress beneath him as he struggled to keep still.
  2224.     “Oh, she got the tip in!” Ayau exclaimed.
  2225.     Maza paused, resting her hands on her knees as she gave herself time to grow accustomed to the feeling of having him inside her. She wrapped her flexible tail around the base, using it to guide him as she resumed her downward crawl.
  2226.     The sensation was incredible, it felt like there was no barrier between them, as if their very nerves were linking together so that they might share the wonderful pleasures. His every twitch made her shiver, and each minute shift and spasm of her passage made him groan in turn. It was the absolute limit of what either of them could take, the borderline, their bodies so different as to be almost incompatible. Almost...
  2227.     “Fuck,” he snarled, his abdominal muscles clenching as she slid an entire inch of him inside her in one smooth motion. Her mouth opened in a silent wail, her feathers fluttering in that colorful, irregular pattern that he had seen when she had climaxed. “A-are you alright?” he stammered.
  2228.     She held up a finger, gesturing for him to be quiet, her eyes closed as she shivered silently.
  2229.     “I think...I just came a little,” she muttered.
  2230.     He winced as she slid a bit further down, her loins sucking on him, muscle spasms rolling up his shaft in waves as if her body was trying to drag him deeper. If it hadn't been for the copious amount of lubrication that she was producing, he doubted if he could even have gotten this much inside of her.
  2231.     Maza reached the halfway point, pausing again to catch her breath. When she moved down an inch further, he felt his glans brush something in her deepest reaches. It was her clitoris, or their equivalent of one, at least. He could feel the firm nub of flesh as his member squashed it against the roof of her tunnel. Maza shuddered, her eyes rolling back into her head and her knees quivering, her legs very nearly giving out.
  2232.     When her gaze once again met his, it was dripping with palpable lust, reason thrown to the wind as the sensation wracked her little body. She crouched, taking him all the way to the base in one motion, her juices forced from her passage to wet his belly and thighs as his swollen member filled her to capacity. She planted her hands on his stomach to support herself, quivering as her feathers flashed in nonsensical patterns and shades, impaled on his cock as it flexed and jumped inside her. He wasn't all that well endowed, but he was already bottoming out inside Maza. He could feel the way that her delicate insides were parting, he was splitting her open, his tip kissing the reaches of her tunnel. He could sense the beating of her heart, the pulsing of her blood, and the rippling of her muscles through the cushiony membrane of her vaginal walls. Her clawed fingers dug into his damp skin to leave red welts, Maza holding onto him as though her life depended on it.
  2233.     She stayed like that for a minute, almost afraid to move, her tail coiling around one of his legs for purchase as if she thought that she might float away. Slowly, cautiously, she began to rock her wide hips back and forth. She wasn't rising and falling on his shaft, she was keeping it locked inside her as she ground against it, pushing forwards and backwards. It was like she was trying to scratch an itch, rubbing his thick shaft against her sweet spot. He could feel the little bead scraping against his glans, her slimy tunnel clenching around him with every thrust. She was milking him ruthlessly, the contractions rolling from his base to the tip in waves, like a throat swallowing around him.
  2234.     Jaeger lay back and let her set the pace, reveling in the euphoria that was washing over him, Maza's every minute twist and quiver setting his nerves alight. It was like being vacuum packed into hot, slimy velvet, she was so tight around him that her insides were like a second skin. They perfectly conformed to every contour of his shaft, as though molten plastic was being poured around a mold.
  2235.     “Are you alright?” he asked, Maza hanging her head as she moved atop him. Her feather sheaths were going crazy, it was almost enough to give him a seizure.
  2236.     “Mmm,” she moaned affirmatively, her voice flanging and breaking as she lost concentration. “I can't keep this up much longer...”
  2237.     Jaeger brought his hands up towards her, resting them on her hips, slowing her pace a little as he felt her smooth scales beneath his fingers. He slid a hand up her waist, her muscular core tensing and flexing as she danced, making slow figures of eight and driving his cock against her tunnel in new and exciting ways. He cupped one of her breasts, her loins gripping him more tightly in response, and he gently pinched one of her pink nipples between his thumb and forefinger. Maza breathed low and comely sighs, her eyes closed as she rocked her hips. She seemed to be getting more used to his size the longer they stayed mated together, her movements growing bolder and more vigorous.
  2238.     “Does it feel good?” she asked, her voice taking on an oddly musical quality as she rode him. He hadn't realized that reproducing human speech required such focus.
  2239.     “It feels amazing,” he groaned, gritting his teeth as her tight little body wrung him remorselessly. Never mind Maza, he wasn't going to last much longer himself. The pleasure was so intense, her muscles crushing him to the extent that it bordered on pain. The sensation seemed to reach down to his core, bypassing skin and flesh to rake at his nerves, sending electric fingers crawling up his spine. He couldn't concentrate, it was as if his thoughts were being overridden, scattered to the winds with every fresh burst of ecstasy.
  2240.     “I can't,” she blurted, leaning forward as she began to shiver uncontrollably. “I ca-” Maza went silent as the shaking of her hips pressed his shaft against her sensitive nub, her entire body going as stiff as a board and her feathers flaring. Jaeger doubled over, groaning as her tunnel narrowed around him, practically vibrating as a powerful orgasm ripped through her. She curled up into a trembling ball on his torso, her fingers digging into his abdomen and her head resting on his chest, her fluttering feathers tickling his skin.
  2241.     He was so close, he only needed a little more to push him over the edge, his primal urges overcoming him as he took her in his arms and flipped her over onto her back. She lay on the mattress beneath him, shivering and twitching as she gazed up at his red face, her eyes unfocused. His sweat rained down on her, the exertion and the humidity making his skin wet, Jaeger looming over her like a hulking beast as her climax dragged on. He was still buried to the hilt inside her, and now he pulled away, her eyes widening as the sensation made another pulse of ecstasy flare within her. He drew back about halfway, then thrust into her again, her body now accustomed to his size enough that he could push through the resistance. His member crushed her clitoris against the roof of her passage on its way back in, her exhausted body convulsing under the fresh wave of pleasure, and he found a slow pace as he drove her deep into the soft cushions.
  2242.     Maza was beside herself, one orgasm chasing the next as she clawed at his chest and warbled in her native tongue. Even through the haze of his arousal, he was careful, being as gentle as he could and watching for any sign of distress that might warn him to stop. Instead, she wrapped her tail around his waist and pulled him into her. She latched onto him with her iron thighs to drive him as deep as he could reach, his heavy pace shaking her with every downward thrust.
  2243.     With a growl, he pushed into her one final time, his shaft throbbing and pulsing as he pumped the first wad of his ejaculate into her quivering passage. Maza yelped as she felt the hot, gelatinous fluid splash against her insides, her spine arching as her thighs gripped him with all their strength. He flooded her, Maza's every crease and wrinkle drowned in his emission, far more than she could accommodate as the obscene blend of her juices and his cloudy semen poured out of her in spurts to soak into the mattress between her legs.
  2244.     Over and over again his body seized, his muscles burning as they forced more of it from him. He felt like he was pouring his very essence into her loins as they swallowed around him like an eager mouth. His nervous system had gone haywire, it was like someone was frying his brain in a bubbling pan of oil, a deep and permeating bliss falling over him like a warm blanket as the sharp pleasure gave way to afterglow.
  2245.     They stayed locked together for what felt like hours, but couldn't have been more than a minute, surfing the tides of their euphoria as though they were a pair of rafts adrift on a stormy sea. The world around them melted away until Maza's heaving, shivering frame was all that existed, the feeling of their joined bodies all that he could think about. The feverish heat of her satin flesh as it roiled around his shaft, the way that her thighs and tail were gripping his hips, the softness of her doughy fat. Her musical moans, the flashing of her colorful feathers, the way that her chiseled muscles moved beneath scales that were as smooth as glass. He was infatuated.
  2246.     When he finally came to, like climbing out of quicksand, she was lying beneath him on the room-spanning bed. Her little chest was rising and falling more regularly, one of her arms covering her eyes as her pink tongue lolled from the side of her mouth. Her legs trembled, his milky ejaculate still pouring from her yawning opening, pooling on the base of her tail before sliding down either side of it. His member was linked to her splayed lips by a thick rope of their blended juices, his length coated in a shiny, slippery sheen. Her flat, toned stomach was noticeably swollen, the bump steadily receding as the globs of his fluid slid out of her. She didn't seem to be in any discomfort, however. She was stretched out like a cat bathing in the sun, smiling drunkenly as she pulled her arm away and batted her eyes at him.
  2247.     “You Earth'nay really are full of surprises,” she muttered.
  2248.     “And you're full of Earth'nay,” Ayau chimed, lying on her stomach nearby as she watched them intently. “It's still coming out of you...”
  2249.     Jaeger felt a little embarrassed, he wasn't exactly used to having an audience. Even so, he was starting to see the flock in the way that Maza did. They were individuals with their own personalities and quirks, to be sure, but they were also as a cohesive unit. What was that old saying? 'Love me, love my dog'. In this case, it was 'love me, love my flock', and that didn't seem like too tall of an order right now.
  2250.     He sat back, feeling the mattress bounce beneath him, wiping some of the sweat from his brow and wishing that he could take a dip in the lake outside. The bedroom stank of exertion, wet leather, and fucking. Xico leaned in to get a closer look between Maza's thighs, running her fingers through the syrupy mess and creating viscous strands when she pulled away. She seemed fascinated with it, perhaps Valbaran semen had a different consistency.
  2251.     “It feels so...warm,” Maza sighed, shivering as her friend's probing provoked an aftershock. “It's clumping up inside me and sticking to my scales...”
  2252.     “I wouldn't want to get it on my feathers, it would never come out,” Ayau complained. “It looks like glue.”
  2253.     Maza moaned and lay back again, squirming on the cushions, no doubt basking in the residual pleasure that smoldered within her. Jaeger couldn't help but feel a little proud of himself. It might not have been through any particular skill on his part, but she had been dancing beneath him like a marionette. Whatever Valbaran intercourse looked like, it must be quite different from what he was used to.
  2254.     He lay with the three aliens for a while in a loose pile, Maza draping her arm over his chest and nuzzling the nape of his neck affectionately. Ayau combed his hair with her fingers, enjoying the texture. Xico was lying with her head resting on his hip, seemingly content with her limited participation, her hand moving out of sight between her thighs as she watched his erection slowly recede. Once his afterglow had diminished, and just before his relaxation and satisfaction morphed into fatigue, he noticed one of the other Valbarans moving towards him.
  2255.     It was Coza, stumbling a little as she made her way across the squashy mattress, still rather drunk it seemed. Jaeger sat up as she approached, waiting for her to say whatever it was that she was going to say, probably something disparaging about human sexual performance or something along those lines. Instead, she threw herself into him, nearly knocking him over as she draped her arms around his shoulders. She clung to him tightly, pushing her nose into his neck. She nibbled and mouthed, kissing him in the Valbaran way, her breathing irregular and ragged as her claws left red trails on his back. He didn't really know what to do, and so he closed his arms around her, the little alien perched in his lap as she whispered desperately in his ear.
  2256.     “Make me feel good, like you did for Maza'xol'natuih and the others,” she pleaded. “I don't want...I can't be alone tonight.”
  2257.     Jaeger could hardly contain his shock. She had been so critical of him, so resistant to the idea of the Valbarans working with the UNN, it had taken him until today to earn her respect. And now here she was, a blend of inebriation and apprehension for what was to come making her leap into his arms with reckless abandon, her scaly lips kissing his shoulder and her feathers flaring in shades of lustful pink.
  2258.     Before he could even give her a reply, she began to tear off her clothes, as if she couldn't stand to wait even a second longer. She must have been holding back all this time, watching as her flockmates joined in one by one, her pride and her arousal warring inside her head until one of them had come out on top. He looked to Maza, worried that Coza might not be of sound mind, but Maza just smiled at him while Ayau chuckled and whispered to Xico.
  2259.     “Please,” Coza whispered, as if her need wasn't apparent for the whole room to see. “I need this, I need to take my mind off things for a while...”
  2260.     Jaeger didn't have to be persuaded, his member already swelling again as it pressed against the thin fabric of her shorts. She pulled her tunic over her head, the garment catching for a moment on her feather sheaths, exposing a tube top of a similar style to the one that Maza had worn.
  2261.     Coza was an inch taller than her friends, larger and more muscular, downright ripped by Valbaran standards. As she removed her top, releasing her breasts from its support to bounce as they settled, he noted that they too were larger and fuller than those of her counterparts. He sank his hand onto one of them, perhaps a little larger than a softball as he filled his palm with her soft flesh, his fingers probing the firmer and more sensitive breast tissue that lay beneath.
  2262.     She was so eager, gripping his other hand and bringing it to her chest, writhing in his lap as her soft fat spilled between his digits. He could feel the way that she was soaking her shorts, the alien grinding on his shaft like she was trying to give him a lap dance, the damp fabric sticking to his skin. All the while she nibbled and licked at his neck, making out with him in their strange way, her hands exploring his chest and stomach as she traced the contours of his muscles with her dull claws. It was the first time that she had gotten so close to him, she was tasting his skin, breathing in his scent and running her little hands all over him. Had she been holding back this fascination since day one?
  2263.     She stood for a moment so that she could slip out of her shorts, casting them aside as she pressed her burning loins against his member, her slick juices escaping to join the still warm residue that lingered from his encounter with Maza. It didn't seem to bother her, either that, or she was too aroused to pay it any mind.
  2264.     Jaeger's surprise gave way to desire, his member flexing against her puffy lips as he took the opportunity to slide his hands across her smooth scales. Just like Maza's, they felt like polished metal, the scales so small and fine that it was akin to the most lavish and expensive satin. Her shoulders and upper arms were more developed than those of her sisters, and he marveled at her six pack as he brushed her belly with his fingertips, her body tensing and her feathers flashing at his touch. It was like she had been carved out of marble by some ancient sculptor, a Greek statue in motion, her scaly skin made slippery and wet by the humidity that was ever present in the planet's air.
  2265.     Her thighs were as hard as steel, Coza murmuring incoherently as he teased them where the scales were a lighter shade, so close to her aching sex that he could feel the heat that she radiated. He ran a hand down her muscular back and across the base of her tail, delving his digits into her velutinous flesh and feeling hard muscle tense up beneath it. He would never have imagined that he would be aroused by a tail, yet it had the same thickness as her inviting thighs, the same softness and springiness as her round ass.
  2266.     “Take me like you did Maza'xol'natuih,” she whispered to him, her scaly lips tugging at his earlobe. “I want to feel what she felt, make a mess of me like you did her. I want it...”
  2267.     She reached down between her trembling legs and gripped his erection in her hand, angling it towards her swollen lips and brushing his glans between them, her flesh so slippery that there was almost no friction.
  2268.     “H-hey, wait,” he stammered, wincing as a bolt of raw pleasure surged through his member like a lightning rod and made his heart skip a beat. “We should go slow, you might hurt yourse-”
  2269.     She slipped the tip of his erection inside her, baring her teeth as she pushed through the initial discomfort, another surge of sensation making his head spin as his still tender flesh was enclosed by her tight walls. Even though she was slightly larger than Maza, she was so toned that it didn't make a lick of difference, her narrow passage massaging him with surprising strength.
  2270.     It hadn't been very long since his last orgasm, and he was still sensitive, his entire lower body seeming to tingle as she slid another inch down his pulsing shaft. Maza had taken her time, but Coza was impatient, she wanted it right now. He wasn't sure if her lack of caution was due to her drunkenness, or if she was emboldened after seeing her friend take him to the base. If Maza could do it, then so could Coza. Perhaps the prideful alien didn't want to be outdone.
  2271.     “I can feel it swelling inside me,” she murmured, practically drooling as she gazed down between her legs. She stroked his chest, pushing as if testing the firmness of his muscles, her eyelids drooping as she watched a bead of fresh sweat roll down towards his stomach.
  2272.     “You smell so strange, so alien,” she continued. Her pink tongue left her mouth to drag across his throat, and she shivered contentedly. “You taste wonderful...”
  2273.     He leaned down so that he could plant a sucking kiss on her narrow shoulder, suddenly overcome with a strange, aggressive desire for her. He bit her gently, her flush scales felt strange against his teeth, and he crawled his lips up her slender neck as he licked and mouthed. She responded by cooing excitedly, rolling her head back to expose her throat to him, delighting in the sensation of his warm tongue raking such a vulnerable area of her anatomy. Perhaps he wanted to pay her back for her attitude up to this point, or maybe it was her lustful pleas, but he felt a fresh heat rising up inside of him that compelled him onwards. Before he knew it, he had lifted her like a doll and had flung her into a pile of cushions closer to the wall, her light fame bouncing as she landed. She yelped, her feathers flaring in surprise, but it was a cry of desire rather than one of discomfort or fear.
  2274.     Jaeger crawled closer to her and took her hips in his hands roughly, taking a moment to stroke her smooth skin as he repositioned her. Her tail waved back and forth as she peered up at him from her nest of pillows, her breasts heaving with the rapid rise and fall of her chest. There was such hunger in her eyes, such carnality, her body ripe and ready for him as she craned her neck to meet his gaze. The other members of her flock had shuffled closer to get a better view, and the fact that they were watching seemed to embarrass her, her crown of feathers fluttering in purple with a hint of pink as she glanced over at them briefly. She always tried to appear so tough and in control, this was all running contrary to the persona that she had crafted for herself. Perhaps her friends already knew that she had a sensitive side, but it was news to Jaeger.
  2275.     He couldn't hold back any longer, Coza parting her thighs in invitation to him, exposing the sliver of glistening pink between the pale green of her scaly labia. He took a firm grip and thrust his shaft against her lips, rubbing up and down. She gripped it in her hand and guided it towards her opening, Jaeger grunting as his exposed glans slid into her pillowy tunnel. He pressed deeper, Coza moaning depravedly in her high-pitched voice as his member was engulfed, half of his length now buried inside her quivering reaches.
  2276.     It felt like a dozen warm tongues were sliding all around him, slippery and coated in her honeyed emissions, the walls of her passage in perpetual motion as they shifted and struggled to accommodate his girth. He pressed her deeper into the bed as he leaned more of his weight on her, planting a fist into the mattress not far from her head to support himself and making her jump, Coza shivering with anticipation.
  2277.     “Deeper,” she begged, “fill me up.”
  2278.     With a primal snarl, Jaeger did as she asked, thrusting his hips forwards. Her insides clung to him like a latex glove, the pleasure enough to make him falter as her slimy insides raked up his shaft and his glans crushed her clitoris against the roof of her passage.
  2279.     Her little body shook, her flexible spine arching and her tail coiling into a spiral, then uncoiling again like a snake playing dead. He could practically see the flood of ecstasy as it washed over her, her toes clenching and her feather sheaths fluttering in random patterns as her reptilian pupils expanded into dark circles. Every muscle in her body tensed like she was being electrocuted, including the ones in her nethers, it was like being stroked through a barrier of wet velvet.
  2280.     She slowly relaxed back down into the pile of cushions, going limp, her breathing ragged. Jaeger hesitated, wondering if he might have gone too far.
  2281.     “M-more,” she whispered, reaching down and gripping his wrists as if to prevent him from pulling away. The feather sheaths on her forearms wrapped around him, tightening to the point that they left welts in his skin.
  2282.     He didn't see a reason to hold back any longer, and so he found a slow, punishing rhythm. He gripped her hips and used the leverage to pull her light frame into him, sliding her along his shaft, the dull thud when he bottomed out inside of her making her quiver and whine. He could actually see himself moving beneath her skin, a subtle bump appearing below her navel when she took him to the hilt, only visible due to the heavy shadow in the room.
  2283.     “Harder,” she growled, the grip of her feather sheaths tightening around his wrists like manacles. She snaked her thick tail up between his legs and curled it around his butt, applying more force to his thrusts with surprising strength.
  2284.     Their flesh slapped together with an audible clap, her flowing juices oozing around his shaft as he filled her to capacity, leaving it nowhere else to go. She released his wrists, running her fingers across his chest and belly as he moved atop her, admiring his body.
  2285.     “Your skin is so wet,” she mumbled, “so smooth and hot...”
  2286.     She reached up as high as she could and licked his throat, tasting the salt, his sudor raining down on her scaly figure with every rock of his hips. She seemed more relaxed now, she had gotten used to having him splitting her open, lying in the pillows as she watched him covetously and basked in the sensations.
  2287.     She whined with disappointment as he pulled out of her, leaving her empty and wanting, her copious fluids clinging to his cock in a thick rope of clear goo. Before she could complain, he roughly flipped her over onto her front and pulled her backwards a little, taking advantage of the pillows to put her face down and ass up in the pile. It gave him an inviting view of her plump hindquarters, her round, toned ass jiggling subtly as she settled into her new position. Her elastic flesh was already attempting to return her gaping hole to its usual size, thick strings of her lubricating juices dangling between her parted thighs, breaking to soak the cushions beneath. Her chubby tail was in the way, and he gave it a gentle slap with the back of his hand.
  2288.     “Raise your tail,” he grumbled.
  2289.     “Excuse me?” Coza snapped, turning to look back at him over her shoulder. It seemed that his request wasn't a polite one in Valbaran culture, it had even snapped her out of her fugue. Perhaps it had negative connotations in their language. He wasn't in the mood for apologies, however. Not with that round ass and her flushed, leaking sex staring him in the face. He took it in his hand and lifted it, Coza gasping in a blend of outrage and lust. For all of her venom, she didn't so much as protest as he rammed his cock back into her, the exquisite walls of her passage welcoming him warmly.
  2290.     “You brute,” she groaned, burying her face in a nearby pillow to muffle her unbecoming vocalizations as he began to rock her little body again. Her rear was so soft and cushiony, rippling like the surface of a lake when it slapped against his belly, and he sank a hand into her yielding meat as he kept the other clasped securely around her hip for purchase. He pressed her deep into the pile with his weight, making sure that she could appreciate it, he wanted her to feel overpowered.
  2291.     When he drove his member into her reaches, it slid against her clitoris at a new angle, Coza taking one of the pillows in her arms and biting into it with her sharp teeth as she endured the pleasure.
  2292.     “P-pull my sheaths,” she moaned, and he reached down with one hand to grab the two tentacles that protruded from the back of her skull. Like taking the reins of a horse, he pulled her head back and up, Coza forced to stare at the ceiling as he fucked her. Her tongue lolled out of the side of her mouth, her back arching as the wet, lurid sounds of their frenzied coupling reached his ears. He was rutting like an animal, he couldn't remember the last time that he had felt like this, soaked in sweat and driven by angry desire.
  2293.     Their mating reached a fever pitch, her moans growing louder, Coza no longer able to muffle them with the pillow. Jaeger too felt like he was on his last legs. His muscles burned, and his erection ached. Even human stamina had its limits, after all. That ache was slowly morphing into a pleasure of frightening intensity, however. A tingling sensation that was growing in his extremities, spreading through his body. He tried to stave off his burgeoning orgasm, he was enjoying this too much to cut it short, but the ceaseless wringing of her muscular little passage was having none of it.
  2294.     He pulled her up by her sheaths, bringing her into range of his arms and closing them around her, enveloping her small body almost entirely in damp biceps and grasping fingers. She yelped in surprise as he pressed her tight against his body, his member bulging her stomach more noticeably at this angle, her eyes rolling back into her head. A string of drool escaped her scaly lips as he pummeled her sensitive nub with a few final, savage thrusts, before his climax burned through his body like a wildfire.
  2295.     He filled her with a single spurt, the hot, gluey fluid pouring down her inner thighs as it was forced out of her. There was just nowhere else for it to go. He continued to thrust even as his throbbing cock pumped her full of his ejaculate, compelled by primal lust, his body seeming to move under its own power as his conscious mind was fogged with euphoria. She writhed in his arms, not trying to escape, but bucking and twitching as she was lost in the throes of her own orgasm. She clawed at his forearms, her tail coiling tightly around one of his legs, the wringing of her tunnel only driving him on. It was like they were locked in a feedback loop of ecstasy, every tremor and throb felt by both parties, feeding into one another.
  2296.     Just when the pleasure became too much to stand, when Jaeger began to fear that an end might not come, his spasming finally ceased. He held Coza there for a moment longer, suspended in the air, the both of them breathing like they had just run a marathon as thick wads of his emission sloughed from her splayed loins. He gently lowered her down onto the pillows, her eyes closed tightly as a few residual tremors rocked her, his come pouring from her opening like a faucet as her contractions pushed it out of her.
  2297.     He fell to his knees, then lay down on his back as he enjoyed the deep satisfaction, warm pleasure washing over him like a tide.
  2298.     “Well, if she had to be conquered by aliens, at least it was on her terms,” Ayau chuckled as she crawled over to Jaeger and draped an arm across his chest. Maza and Xico joined him too, forming another pile, Maza listening to his heart as her head rose and fell along with his chest.
  2299.     Coza seemed to come to, gazing back at the flock with a flutter of embarrassed purple. Her inner thighs were drenched in sticky, clumpy semen, it was congealing on her fine scales. Eventually, she gave in, rising to her hands and knees unsteadily and crawling over to him. She planted her head on his belly, her arm draped over his thigh as she closed her eyes and seemed to drift in and out of sleep, so relaxed now that she could scarcely stay awake. It was a far cry from the nervous, pleading state that she had been in earlier, and he hoped that he had succeeded in taking her mind off the impending invasion.
  2300.     With all of the aliens draped across him, Ayau once again playing with his hair and Maza looking up at him adoringly, he was actually starting to feel like a real member of their flock. There was a sense of belonging, as if being separated from them at this point would be jarring and painful. He had grown so used to having them around, he had gotten to know them so...intimately. Even Coza had changed her tune and was now sleeping with her head on his stomach. He dared to reach down and run his fingers across her snout and down between her sheaths, stroking her scales, the fearsome alien mumbling contentedly in her sleep.
  2301.     “I think that even Coza wants to keep you now,” Ayau giggled, “I've never seen her sleep so soundly.”
  2302.     Jaeger noticed that one member of the flock was conspicuously absent, however. Tacka was still lounging on the far side of the room, watching them from a safe distance. Maza anticipated his question before he had time to ask it.
  2303.     “She'll come when she's ready,” she explained. “It sometimes takes her a little while to warm up to boys, and you are an especially large boy.”
  2304.     “Hey, if I can win over Coza, then I can win over anybody.”
  2305.     “Tacka is a little...particular,” Maza continued, turning her head to look over at her friend.
  2306.     “How so?”
  2307.     “She usually likes to watch for a while, then she takes her fill.”
  2308.     'Takes her fill'? That didn't sound like the behavior of a meek and reserved creature at all. He made eye contact with her across the room, and then she slowly rose to her feet, making her way over to the pile. She wasn't merely walking, she was stalking. Her posture was slightly hunched, and her tail was held out as straight as a rod behind her for balance. She flashed the feathers on her forearms, sending signals to her flock, more complex and nuanced than the simple emotional tells. It made him think of the flashing panels that he had seen on the sides of their fighters.
  2309.     “Uh...what's she doing?” Jaeger asked, and Maza just chuckled at him.
  2310.     “She's hunting you.”
  2311.     “Hunting me? Why?”
  2312.     “That's just the way she likes to do things.”
  2313.     “Should I be worried?”
  2314.     Tacka's head was perfectly level as she made her way towards him, like it was gyroscopically stabilized, her violet eyes fixed intently on him with their round pupils. She looked like a tiger preparing to pounce, the sharp claws on her toes twitching as if she couldn't wait to plunge them into his flesh. She moved silently, unblinking, signaling to her flock.
  2315.     “What's she saying?” Jaeger asked, watching the complex feather dance. It reminded him of what he had seen when they had ventured outside of the wall, into the territory of the fearsome Teth'rak, the group of aliens sharing information and communicating without making a sound that might give them away.
  2316.     “She's signaling for us to surround you. In the context of hunting, specifically,” Ayau explained. Jaeger realized that he was indeed surrounded by the aliens, even if they were lounging on him like giant cats. “Now she's telling us to restrain you,” she laughed. “Do you think you'll like being restrained, Jaeger? Is that something the Earth'nay do?”
  2317.     “I...suppose,” he replied hesitantly. He wasn't sure exactly what he was agreeing to, but one of his ex's had enjoyed being tied to the bed frame with loose scarves, perhaps it was something like that? As she neared, the aliens began to shift, even Coza waking from her nap and blinking groggily as she looked over at Tacka.
  2318.     Suddenly, Jaeger felt hands wrapping around his wrists. Ayau had been curled up near his head, playing with his hair, and now she had taken both of his hands in hers and had tied them together with her feather sheaths. She was remarkably strong, he couldn't have wriggled free of her if he had wanted to. Maza was still resting her head on his chest, watching as Tacka neared, while Xico and Coza gripped his legs. They might not have much stamina, but there were far stronger than their size suggested in short bursts, Jaeger quickly finding himself completely immobilized. Like lions holding down a wildebeest before the killing bite, they restrained him as the little huntress advanced.
  2319.     She crouched lower to the ground, then pounced, springing into the air on her long legs. Jaeger couldn't help but try to flinch away, but she landed so gracefully, so light that he barely felt her impact the mattress. Her clawed feet were planted to either side of his hips, Tacka standing over him as she looked down on him from above.
  2320.     In a flash, her pointed teeth were at his jugular. But instead of a bite, he felt her smooth tongue rake his throat. She licked and nuzzled, kissing him, pinching his skin lightly and mouthing with her scaly lips. Perhaps there was more to their odd way of kissing than he had initially assumed. Could it be somehow related to hunting? Maybe there was something symbolic about exposing one's weak points to a partner and allowing their jaws to come so close? It sent pleasant shivers rolling down his spine, his member waking from its lethargy as she gently scratched his chest with her clawed hands. Being restrained like this made him feel oddly vulnerable, which amplified his sensitivity to her kissing in turn. She was being so...passionate, her arousal obvious, perhaps this was some kind of fetish to her.
  2321.     He felt her pointed teeth press against his throat as she bit him softly, not applying enough pressure to break the skin, but just enough that he could feel it. Her long, agile tongue glanced across his neck, her lips incredibly soft despite their subtly scaly texture.
  2322.     He lay back and enjoyed the sensation, her kisses slowly moving down his chest. He was so relaxed, in fact, that he was having a little trouble performing. He had already done it three times in what couldn't have been more than an hour, and the little aliens didn't know his limitations. They might have assumed that he had none.
  2323.     Someone seemed to be aware of his difficulties, however. He lurched as he felt something warm and wet on his growing erection, looking past Tacka's small figure to see that Coza had curled a hand around his cock to bring it closer to her. She lapped at his shaft lazily, pressing her lips against it and tracing the veins with the tip of her slimy organ. Her demeanor had changed so much, she was doting on him, indifferent to the taste of her own fluids that still clung to his skin.
  2324.     Xico brushed her snout against it from the other side, practically rubbing it against her face as she joined her friend. It seemed that her fascination with his organ hadn't diminished. She cupped his balls in her hand, stroking them softly, the sensation making him shiver.
  2325.     He felt Maza shifting as she lay on his belly, and then a third tongue joined them, his mind clouding as he basked in the sheer bliss of it. They couldn't take him into their throats in the way that a human woman could, and they couldn't suck due to the way that their mouths were shaped, but the fact that it compelled them to lick and kiss instead was almost worth the trade-off.
  2326.     The trio of tongues coiled and roved, not leaving an inch of his sensitive skin untouched, sneaking beneath his foreskin and teasing his glans. Three pairs of lips nibbled and kissed, the little aliens doing what they could with his oversized organ. Hands slid across his belly and thighs, massaging as their warm breath blew on his wet skin, his arousal growing as he began to squirm. His hips rose off the mattress as he thrust into the empty air, Ayau laughing playfully as she watched from above his head. The feathery Valbaran was still holding his wrists, and her tail snaked down across his chest, tickling him with her downy covering. The entire flock was participating now, his nervous system reeling under the stimulation, like his brain couldn't keep track of every lick and stroke.
  2327.     Tacka ceased her nibbling, drawing back from his neck, a strand of her saliva linking her lips to his skin. She signaled to her sisters with a flash of feathers, and then they ceased their teasing, working in concert. Jaeger grumbled with disappointment, he didn't want the pleasure to end yet, but it seemed that Tacka had other ideas in mind.
  2328.     He felt her thick, rubbery tail wrap around his member, her smooth scales made slick by the saliva and juices that glazed it. She tightened around it like an anaconda constricting its prey, sliding the fat coils up and down as he gasped beneath her. It was incredible, he would never have imagined that it would feel this good, Jaeger bucking into her as her muscles tightened through the layer of chubby flesh. Her scaly skin was as smooth as latex against his glans, made slick by the residue that coated his shaft, gliding up and down as the rolls stimulated him.
  2329.     Tacka planted a foot on his torso, standing over him with her hands on her hips, her two curved claws tapping against his belly as if she was threatening to filet him like a freshly-caught salmon. She kept up her stroking all the while, his eyes losing focus as her grip became tighter and tighter, milking him like a machine. She never said a word, she just watched his reaction, perhaps enjoying the power that she had over him.
  2330.     Was she going to get him off like this? The prospect of filling the makeshift tunnel that her tail had formed with his ejaculate was an attractive prospect, she didn't seem to be slowing or letting up. He could feel another orgasm welling, she was wringing it out of him ruthlessly, not giving him a second of respite. She watched him intently, and then his unspoken question was answered, her tail uncoiling and pulling away. She cracked it like a whip, shaking free some of the clinging globs of who-knew-what, and he flinched as he considered that she could potentially do the same to him. You didn't need to buy a whip to live out your kinky fantasies if you had one growing out of your butt.
  2331.     She reached the tip of her tail down towards his face, a smile curling her lips as he pulled away from it. But rather than strike him with it, she gently traced the line of his jaw. It was as dexterous as a finger, she had such fine control over it.
  2332.     “She likes you,” Ayau snickered, apparently finding the whole situation very amusing. “Struggle for her a little, play along.”
  2333.     “Alright...”
  2334.     Jaeger did as she asked, making a show of fighting against his bonds, Ayau laughing excitedly as she tightened her hold on him. He wriggled and squirmed, but the aliens really were strong enough to keep him from breaking loose. It reminded him of when Maza had hogtied him on top of the wall during their sparring match, he wasn't so much playing along as genuinely incapacitated.
  2335.     Maza was lying beside him now, one arm draped over his chest, her head resting on the mattress beside his own. She had no limb to restrain, and so she was just watching, smiling at him reassuringly as she snuggled up to him.
  2336.     Tacka did indeed seem to enjoy his writhing, keeping her foot planted on his belly as he bucked, wetting her lips with her tongue lasciviously. Her hunting instincts certainly were strong, and he wondered if all of the Valbarans enjoyed this kind of sexual play, or if it was just Tacka's personal kink. They didn't seem to deny their natural instincts the way that humans often did. Judging by their behavior in the field, and in the bedroom, they saw it as something that was healthy to indulge in.
  2337.     The hunt was a group effort, and he felt Ayau draw closer, the alien planting his head in her feathery thighs like a pair of pillows. She released his wrists momentarily, but they were quickly bound by her tail, the alien sitting on his arms as she brought her hands down to hold his head steady. She stroked his cheeks with her fingers, smirking at him from above, her face upside-down relative to his. Coza kissed his hip as she held his leg, Xico massaging his balls in her gentle hand as she secured the other, her tail coiled along the length of his limb such that he couldn't even bend his knee. She was still mesmerized by the throbbing of his erection, stroking it gently to keep him hard and wanting, fawning over it.
  2338.     Tacka went for the kill, so to speak, using her tail to guide his member towards her loins as she crouched over him. The first kiss of her wet flesh against his tip sent a shockwave through his body, the aliens exchanging excited glances with one another as Tacka looked down at him like a queen presiding over her subject. He was so oversensitive at this point, his nerves were shot, and yet the soreness that was starting to throb in his shaft and in his abdominal muscles was oddly gratifying. It was a raw pleasure, unfiltered, satisfying in the same way as scratching an insect bite.
  2339.     She was just as tight as Maza and Coza had been, struggling to slide down his shaft as her muscular walls gripped him fiercely, her chest pumping more rapidly as she wriggled her hips in an attempt to take him deeper. Unlike the other two, she seemed intent on not showing any hint of weakness. Her expression never changed, and her eyes remained fixed on his, unblinking. It was so intense, it made him feel oddly compliant, like she was hypnotizing him with her stare. Even if she didn't show it, he could feel the way that her little body was reacting to him, her walls trembling as they split apart and her satin insides wriggling around the intruder as though they had a mind of their own. They massaged him in waves, as if there was a fist reaching through the barrier of her flesh and using it to stroke him.
  2340.     To his surprise, she suddenly took him all the way to the base, jumping straight into the deep end. His member split her apart and squashed her clitoris against the roof of her tunnel, every nerve ending that she had down there no doubt lighting up like a switchboard. The only sign of any discomfort was a slight tremor in her lower lip, her eyes losing their focus for a moment and her sheaths twitching. He flexed inside of her, and he could see that she felt it, his member moving and swelling even as her passage struggled to contain it.
  2341.     Unlike her sisters, she was determined to maintain control over the encounter. She wasn't about to be reduced to a shivering, drooling mess of fluttering feathers by this Earth'nay, at least that was the impression that Jaeger got as she began to signal to her flock.
  2342.     He felt their hold on him tighten, Ayau especially closing her downy arms around his head, a hand under his chin and another in his hair like she was about to perform chiropracty on him. It wasn't much of a headlock, but the intent was obvious, Tacka had just commanded them to keep him still so that he couldn't overwhelm her with any unexpected movements. Ayau was giggling to herself maniacally, thoroughly enjoying the game, even if she might not necessarily be getting the same gratification out of it that Tacka was. Maza shuffled closer, drawing circles on his chest with her claw, pushing her snout into the nape of his neck and nuzzling as Tacka began to move. It seemed that Maza just wanted to be close to him, watching him with a satisfied smile as Tacka's hips began to rock.
  2343.     It felt so different from his encounters with the other members of the flock. There was Xico, who seemed to be in awe of him, fascinated on a purely biological level by his strange anatomy. Ayau saw everything as a game, while Coza had let all of her repressed desires manifest themselves in the space of a few minutes. Maza wanted to be intimate with him, close to him, their lovemaking had been gentle and exploratory in the most wonderful of ways. Tacka sought to dominate him, she wanted control over him and their encounter, dictating the pace as she straddled him and circled her hips with the staccato thrusts and graceful twists of a belly dancer.
  2344.     Valbaran hips were wide enough compared to their slight frames that she could just about get her legs around him, crouching on her feet rather than kneeling as a human woman would have in the cowgirl position. Much of her motions came from her legs, giving her very fine control, something that would have made a human's thighs burn like fire after only a minute or two. It was fascinating to watch her muscles move beneath her burnished scales, so fluid and smooth, her developed six pack bulging from beneath the pale skin on her belly as she rode him. She rested her weight on his torso, planting her hands just beneath his chest for support as the back-and-forth motion of her lovemaking became more aggressive and greedy.
  2345.     It drove his glans against her sweet spot, digging into it, her resolve faltering as the bursts of ecstasy rippled through her body. He considered taking charge again, but that wasn't how Tacka liked to do things, he was supposed to be her prey.
  2346.     Jaeger began to writhe, feigning resistance as he felt his captors tighten their hold on him to keep him still. He made a show of trying to escape, Tacka baring her sharp teeth in a grin. She really did like feeling him struggle beneath her, and so he upped the ante, bucking and fighting. She tightened her thighs around his hips, gripping his leg with her tail for purchase, fixing her eyes on his as she tried to keep him under control. The flock could keep his extremities secured, but they couldn't do much about his bucking. A Valbaran male would have been held down by the weight of the straddling female, but Tacka was so light that he had no trouble lifting her.
  2347.     He thrust deeper into her tunnel, interrupting her steady rhythm, her feathers fluttering in shades of pink and red as she rode him like a mechanical bull. It didn't seem to annoy her, perhaps she saw it as a challenge, the iron muscles of her thighs clamping down on him and her passage squeezing him.
  2348.     Her breathing grew ragged, her muscles bulging from beneath her skin as she clung to him, her breasts bouncing with every upward thrust of his hips. She reminded him of a rider trying to break in a wild horse, she wouldn't have looked out of place with a cowboy hat in one hand and a pair of reins in the other. Tacka signaled to her flock, coordinating wordlessly, the extravagant feather patterns mesmerizing him as she gave her silent instructions.
  2349.     Ayau shifted positions once again, this time locking her legs around his head like she was in a wrestling match. She was so goddamned soft and fluffy that the touch of her plump thighs against his cheeks very nearly prompted him to stop and relax. She chuckled at him seductively as he tugged fruitlessly at her thighs with his now freed hands, not so much trying to free himself as taking the opportunity to run his fingers through her feathers and sink them into her doughy fat.
  2350.     “Do you like this game, Jaeger?” she whispered in his ear.
  2351.     Maza caught one of his arms and wrapped her own around it in a tight hug, hanging onto it like a body pillow as she trapped it at his side. She closed her thighs around it too, immobilizing it. His limb was long enough in comparison to her short torso that she could rest her chin on his shoulder while his hand was trapped between her legs, his bicep parked securely between her breasts. She nuzzled sleepily, it was the most tender restraint that he had ever been subjected to.
  2352.     Coza and Xico took the legs, and then Ayau curled her tail around his remaining hand, leaving him once again tightly secured. A fresh sheen of sudor was making his skin slippery now, the exertion of their sexual playfighting and the humidity in the room making him sweat. Tacka enjoyed that too, sliding her hands around on his chest and stomach, her palms as soft as silk.
  2353.     Neither one of them could take much more stimulation. It seemed as if the aliens had finally succeeded in exhausting him, and Tacka's thrusting was becoming frantic. She began to rise and fall on his erection, fucking him the way that a human would, perhaps taking inspiration from his encounters with her friends. The forward and backwards rocking motion seemed most natural to them, that must be how they mated with Valbaran males, but the upward curve of his shaft seemed almost purposefully designed to drive them wild when it plunged in and out of them.
  2354.     There were no lustful moans or pained cries from Tacka, she merely smiled quietly to herself, her feathers puffing up in hues that conveyed her arousal and her excitement. He could feel her pleasure mounting, her insides applying so much suction, creating a seal of damp flesh that raked up and down his length with every push.
  2355.     She dictated the pace, which gave her somewhat more control over how much stimulation she received, and Jaeger felt her tempo increase as she appeared to decide that she was ready to finish. She dug her dull claws into his belly, leaving red trails in his skin, her flesh slapping against his as her pace grew faster and faster. All he could do was lie back and smile groggily at the ceiling, the soft cushion of Ayau's thighs brushing against his cheeks as she peered down at him with a smirk on her reptilian face. Tacka let all of her weight fall on him, rising on his shaft and then dropping back down to slam him into her depths with enough force that he wondered how it wasn't hurting her, the pair of them now soaked in sweat and sexual fluids.
  2356.     “Fill me, Earth'nay,” Tacka hissed through gritted teeth. Her words sliced through his haze of euphoria like a hot knife, he had scarcely heard Tacka speak up until now. The shock of that, combined with her salacious command, quickly sent him over the edge.
  2357.     Ayau giggled to herself like a schoolgirl as his hips rose from the mattress, lifting Tacka along with them as she clung him, his muscles stiffening as he erupted inside her. He was shocked that he even had anything left to give her, warm, creamy jets of his fluids splashing against her quivering walls and spilling out of her in spurts. She froze like a statue, shivering as her feverishly hot loins drew on him in wracking contractions, squeezing his climax out of him like he was a tube of toothpaste. Something about being completely immobilized made it all the more intense, a kind of frustration adding to the pleasure that was coursing up his spine and making his resolve melt, a rattling groan escaping his throat as Ayau's tight thighs choked it off.
  2358.     He gradually lowered himself to the mattress, bringing Ayau back down, his pearly emission sliding out of her in globs. She shivered softly as she rose off his shaft on unsteady legs, a lurid concoction of their shared fluids sloughing out of her to pool on his belly and clinging to her thighs in ropes. Xico could no longer restrain herself, releasing his leg from her grasp and plunging her tongue into the mess. He felt it rake his skin, sliding in the slippery residue, the little alien trembling with lust as she rolled the gelatinous fluid around in her mouth.
  2359.     Ayau released him from her headlock, and Maza leaned closer to kiss his neck, Coza losing interest once the deed was done and lying beside him on the bed as she drifted back to sleep with one armed draped lazily over his waist. Tacka seemed satisfied, and as the embers of his orgasm faded, she joined her flock in their loose pile. Jaeger's afterglow lingered, his body spent, Maza snickering at his obvious exhaustion.
  2360.     “It took five of us, but I'm reassured to see that Earth'nay have their limits too,” she whispered in his ear. “It seems that even Tacka has taken a liking to you.”
  2361.     “That was a taste of heaven,” he mumbled, “I take back anything negative I ever said about Valbaran culture. You guys have this all figured out...”
  2362.     “Does that mean that if you could stay, you would?” Maza asked hesitantly.
  2363.     “Yeah, stay!” Ayau chirped.
  2364.     It was an attractive prospect, and one that he hadn't seriously considered until now. The looming threat of the Bug invasion had been the cliff that they were all rushing inexorably towards, he hadn't put any thought into what might happen to him beyond it. He was still assigned to the Rorke, as he would be if they came out of this alive, and he wasn't sure what the fleet would do once the battle was won. Someone would have to head back to UNN space and make a report, but would the entire fleet leave, or would they stick around to help with repairs and relief efforts for a while? Then again, maybe they would all be dead tomorrow, and none of it would matter.
  2365.     Could he really live here? Would he be allowed to? The city was a utopia by Earth standards, it was swimming in natural beauty, and the environment was like that of a tropical paradise. If everything went as planned, and the Valbarans joined the Coalition, it would no doubt become a popular tourist destination. He could easily imagine resorts springing up all over the planet.
  2366.     He was in love with Maza, he realized that now, lying by her side as her warm breath blew on his neck. He might have been for a while. He had never felt such a sense of belonging as he did when he was with her flock, it was like a family, the bonds of friendship and intimacy far closer than anything in human experience. There was camaraderie in the UNN, he had good friends who he would gladly give his life for, but there was something deeper going on here. The aliens were his friends now, his lovers, all of them. But Maza was his fixation, she was the glue that held all of this together. Her excited energy, her tenderness, and her adventurous spirit had set the events of the past few days in motion. As a human, he was compelled to love one person alone, and yet Maza's flock didn't feel like separate people. They felt like an extension of her being.
  2367.     “I'd like that,” he said, surprising himself with his candor.
  2368.     Maza tightened her hold on him, rubbing her snout into his neck gleefully.
  2369.     “We would too,” she murmured.
  2370.  
  2371. CHAPTER 16: INVASION
  2372.  
  2373.     The chemical vats in the bowels of the ship had finally generated enough electricity to charge the superlight drive, the Queen could feel the stores of energy growing through her neural link to the living ship. She only needed enough to carry her from the outer solar system to the planet's gravity well, there was no retreat. If she should fail here, then her hive would perish either in combat or from starvation.
  2374.     The great vessel turned slowly towards its target as it prepared for the jump, green flame spewing from the dozens of thrusters spaced out along its armored hull. She shared the behemoth's pain through that same link, the wounds on its plasma cannons were still healing where the probes had burrowed into its flesh to access the barrels, but they had accomplished their task admirably. They had revealed that the walled hives that had been erected by the planet's fauna were indeed as poorly defended as she had hoped. They were ripe for invasion, her children would soon swarm through their strange, glass structures and clean them of resistance. All she had to do was create an opening in their defenses to get her troops down to the surface. The enemy were strong in space, but they could not prevail on the ground, she was certain of that. She had to punch through.
  2375.     Legions of hungry, restless Drones and Warriors were waking from their low metabolic state, emerging from the recesses in the brood chambers where they had been hibernating during their long voyage. They floated through the winding, intestine-like corridors of the ship in zero gravity, making their way towards the landing craft and drop pods that would carry them down to the planet and transport them to its defensive installations. Those strange, ring-shaped constructs were the key to the planet's defense, the infrared radiation that they emitted betrayed their onboard generators and their powerful weapons systems. She would swarm those too, and knock them out of the sky.
  2376.     There was something else there too, a large vessel that hovered above the planet's Northern pole. It was different from the others, bigger and sturdier, more heavily armed. Judging by the radio and laser traffic that it was sending out, it must be their leader, their Queen. It was risky, but if she could kill it, then the enemy's forces would surely be sent into disarray.
  2377.     Her army was rousing, her fleet was at the ready, she could sense their proximity through the many eyes and antennae of the hive ship. Swarms of fighters were docking with their carriers, assault ships were flexing their mandibles as they prepared to bite into metal, plasma weapons were charging and loading.
  2378.     They would soon be in orbit around her prize, then her children would seize it, and its biomass would feed her offspring for the next thousand generations...
  2379.  
  2380. ***
  2381.    
  2382.     “I could get used to this,” Jaeger said, leaning back against the shore of the little lake as he sat in the pristine water. The blue-green grass was soft and carefully tended, there were colorful flowers all around, and the trees gave them complete privacy despite being so close to the footpaths and the other domed dwellings.
  2383.     Maza filled a wooden bowl and poured it over his shoulders. The water was cool, but it was a pleasant reprieve from the heat and humidity. The rest of the flock were lounging nearby, washing themselves and relaxing in the shimmering pool. The golden rays of the rising sun were just peeking over the horizon, and Jaeger still felt a sense of satisfaction from the night before, not to mention a certain soreness from his overindulgence. Baker was still sleeping off his hangover it seemed, he hadn't moved from the living room carpet yet.
  2384.     Jaeger felt as if they had all awoken in a new state, as if their relationship had morphed into something new overnight. Now, he felt completely comfortable around the aliens, and he no longer felt that disconnect between Maza and her flock. They were one and the same, inseparable. He finally understood their relationship, and what it meant to belong. In a way, he too had become part of their family. It was a good feeling, romance and friendship blending in a way that they seldom did in human culture.
  2385.     He watched as Xico and Tacka helped Ayau wash her feathers, combing them with their fingers and rubbing in some kind of shampoo or soap, the foam quickly dispersing and vanishing into the water. It was probably some kind of eco-friendly, non-toxic substance, knowing the Valbarans. This bathing ritual reminded him of a troop of monkeys grooming one another, it was as much for social bonding as it was for actual bathing.
  2386.     Maza's fingers found their way into his hair, and she massaged some kind of creamy soap into his scalp as he sighed contentedly and slid lower into the water.
  2387.     “That feels good,” he mumbled.
  2388.     “This stuff is good for feathers, so it's probably good for fur too,” she said as she rubbed it in.
  2389.     “Hair,” he corrected.
  2390.     “If you say so, but it feels like fur to me,” she chuckled. “It feels good to get clean, we got a little...messy last night.”
  2391.     “How do you feel about all that?” he asked, hoping that she still felt the same way about him after waking up. They had drunk and smoked a lot prior to their encounter, and he was a little worried that one or more of them might have regretted it after they had sobered up. Coza especially seemed to have completely switched personalities while under the influence.
  2392.     “Look around you,” she said, gesturing to her flock. “What do you see?”
  2393.     Ayau was warbling happily, her feathers flashing in relaxed green as Tacka rubbed soap into the down on her back, while Xico had opened one of the sheaths on her head and was carefully washing the layers of colorful plumes. Coza was floating peacefully on her back in the water nearby, the system of air sacks that the aliens used to breathe seemed to make them extremely buoyant.
  2394.     “Everyone looks...happy,” he replied, and Maza nodded with a smile on her face.
  2395.     “Let's just say that we reached a consensus.”
  2396.     Reassured, he lay back and closed his eyes, taking in the ever-present birdsong from the treetops. Before long, however, the peace was shattered by the sound of Baker's voice.
  2397.     “Jaeger! Jaeger!” he shouted as he stumbled through the undergrowth. “Where the hell are you guys?”
  2398.     “Over here!” Jaeger called back to him. After a moment, he appeared at the edge of the water
  2399.     “Fucking trees,” he complained as he struggled between two of the fat trunks. The aliens scowled at him as they covered themselves up with the feathers on their forearms, like burlesque performers about to do a fan dance. Jaeger hadn't even considered that Baker might be intruding on their privacy, he was so used to the casual nudity that was a fact of life on the Rorke. Baker wasn't interested in ogling the flock, however. Nor did he seem at all surprised or concerned by the sight of Jaeger lounging naked in a lake with the aliens. He had his phone in his hand, and he looked shaken.
  2400.     “Two fucking hive ships just jumped into orbit,” he said, “we've been called back to the Rorke. We have to get to the spaceport, right now.”
  2401.     “What?” Jaeger asked, rising out of the water.
  2402.     “Right now Jaeger, get your gear!”
  2403.     “Alright, I'm coming, I'm coming.”
  2404.     “It's finally happening,” Coza whispered, her feathers flashing in fear. Maza called everyone over, and they huddled in the lake, Jaeger already making his way back across the grass towards the dwelling. He rubbed himself down with a towel and pulled on his uniform, throwing a few items into his rucksack as he prepared to leave. The flock seemed to have made up their minds, piling into the living room shortly after him and donning their camouflaged space suits. Maza pulled her communicator out of her pocket as it began to sound an alarm, tapping at the screen for a moment.
  2405.     “We're coming too,” she said, “we'll take one of the landers and follow you up into orbit.”
  2406.     “Got it,” Jaeger replied as he slung his pack over his shoulder. “Are you guys ready for this? It's going to be a fucking madhouse up there.”
  2407.     “We've been training for this our whole lives,” Coza replied sternly. “Let them come.”
  2408.     “Quiet,” Baker said, hushing them as he moved to one of the round windows and crouched to look out at the sky. After a second, Jaeger heard it too, the sound of sonic booms. “Something just entered the atmosphere.”
  2409.     There were a series of tremors, the ground shaking beneath their feet, soon chased by what sounded like far-off explosions.
  2410.     “Are they shelling?” Jaeger asked, alarmed.
  2411.     Baker made for the door, opening it and peering up into the air, Jaeger following behind him. He looked up at the blue sky, cloudless save for a few white wisps.
  2412.     “Look, another salvo,” Baker said as he pointed upwards. Jaeger saw them too, a swarm of objects trailing smoke as the flames of reentry licked at them. They were far off, but he could make out their shape, vaguely like a teardrop. They almost looked like giant seeds. As they reached the appropriate altitude, they popped membranous chutes, slowing them enough that the impact wouldn't kill the occupants. They came down hard, shaking the earth and kicking up clouds of debris as they landed in the city.
  2413.     “No, that's not artillery. Those are fucking drop pods,” Baker continued, “they must have gotten them past the orbital defenses.”
  2414.     “Fuck,” Jaeger hissed. The stakes had just been raised, those drop pods would soon disgorge an army of Betelgeusian Drones, and maybe some Warriors too. Good job the mag-lev line could get them to the spaceport in a matter of minutes. “Come on, there's no time to waste, they just brought the fight to us.”
  2415.     “Wait,” Coza said, the two humans looking back at her as she walked over to the curved wall. She hit some kind of pressure plate with her fist, and then a hidden panel slid back, exposing what looked like a gun rack. It was stocked with blocky Valbaran laser weapons. Coza looked as determined as Jaeger had ever seen her, selecting a rifle from the rack and tossing it to Tacka, who checked the battery on it with practiced speed and precision.
  2416.     The other aliens geared up, holstering pistols on the belts of their jumpsuits and shouldering rifles. Maza tossed a pistol to Jaeger, and then one to Baker, there were only enough rifles for the five flockmates. Jaeger examined the weapon, it looked like a flashlight with a pistol grip. It was tiny, but fortunately, Valbaran fingers were proportionally thicker than those of humans. He could just about get his index finger through the trigger without accidentally pulling it.
  2417.     “Squeeze the trigger for a quick pulse,” Maza explained, “hold it for a concentrated beam. These aren't like your railguns, you have to hold the beam on the target for maximum damage. There's a safety on the left side, there, you got it.”
  2418.     The aliens closed their opaque helmets, taking on the appearance that they had when Jaeger had first seen them descend from their lander back on the Rorke. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. He watched as Coza slipped what appeared to be brass knuckles over her hands, the two rings that went over her fingers adorned with dull points that almost looked like the window spikes that you'd use to break a car windshield.
  2419.     “What are those for?” Baker asked.
  2420.     “Traditionally, Valbarans fight with bladed weapons,” she explained. “But they can't cut through a Bug's shell. These babies will crack a Drone's carapace like a Gue'tra egg. I've been ready for this.”
  2421.     “I can see that,” Baker added. “Alright, let's get to the mag-lev train.”
  2422.    
  2423. ***
  2424.    
  2425.     They arrived at the escalator that led up to the track, the party rushing up the steps and onto the platform, Tacka tapping at the touch panel that would call the train. Jaeger watched the skies warily, shielding his eyes against the sunrise. The drop pods were coming down all over the city, plumes of smoke rising from the impact sites. The large defense towers that were spaced around the circumference of the city were firing their massive laser batteries at the incoming objects. It made the sky look like a rave, lines of glittering, green light impaling some of the pods and making them burst into flames or sending them wildly off-course. It wasn't enough, however. They couldn't shoot them all down.
  2426.     He couldn't make out anything in space, the battle must not have reached low orbit yet. He was used to hearing the crack of XMRs, but if there was a firefight happening deeper inside Yilgarn, the noise from the lasers and plasma weapons wasn't reaching them out in the suburbs.
  2427.     “Damn it, the track is damaged,” Tacka announced with a flash of angry red colors from the LCD panels on her suit. “We'll have to proceed on foot, at least until we can find another station that lies beyond the broken rail.”
  2428.     “A pod must have come down somewhere along the track,” Baker said, cursing under his breath. “We can't do any good down here, we have to get to our Beewolfs, the real fight is happening in orbit.”
  2429.     “Then we'll have to hoof it,” Jaeger confirmed. “It's only a few miles, we've run further than that in P.T, but how will the Valbarans keep up?”
  2430.     The flock exchanged glances, then huddled again, the humans waiting as they formulated a new plan.
  2431.     “We'll take the scooters,” Maza added as she gestured to the rack beside the station, slinging her rifle across her back. “It looks like the pods are mostly coming down in the city, if we go around, then we can probably avoid the worst of the fighting.”
  2432.     Coza looked surly, she obviously wanted a piece of the Bugs, but she had likely been overruled.
  2433.     “Alright,” Jaeger conceded. “You know the terrain better than we do, so lead on.”
  2434.    
  2435. ***
  2436.    
  2437.     They raced down the winding footpaths, weaving between the hills and patches of woodland on their scooters. Jaeger felt ridiculous, but it was indeed a faster option than walking, and he was gradually getting the hang of the two-wheeled vehicle as he steered it along.
  2438.     There were no pedestrians in sight, no Valbarans were coming out of their domed houses to gawk at the sky in fear and disbelief. It was deserted, a ghost town.
  2439.     “Where is everybody?” Jaeger asked, raising his voice over the rushing wind. The scooters didn't go very fast, no more than fifteen miles per hour, but was enough to make it harder to hear one another.
  2440.     “They're hiding in their shelters,” Xico explained.
  2441.     “Shelters?”
  2442.     “We've been preparing for this day for twenty rotations,” she continued, “every building in Yilgarn has an underground shelter to protect the occupants.”
  2443.     “You realize that Bugs burrow,” Baker added, “those shelters won't keep them safe forever.”
  2444.     “No, but it will protect them from being killed by bombardment during the initial invasion. It's our job to make sure that the invasion never progresses beyond that stage.”
  2445.     The rolling hills and the carefully placed trees might have been aesthetically pleasing, but they were breaking up Jaeger's line of sight now, he couldn't see more than a couple of hundred feet in any direction. There could be a whole platoon of Drones right around the corner, and they wouldn't know it until they ran straight into them.
  2446.     “Heads up!” Baker yelled, and Jaeger looked to the sky. There was a pod heading straight for them, trailing black smoke as its armored hull cooled. He couldn't tell exactly where it was going to land, but it had to be nearby. The teardrop-shaped mass of metal and chitin released its chute, lurching as the membranous flaps caught the wind and began to slow its descent. It vanished behind the trees a short distance away, the ground trembling as it kicked up a cloud of dirt and debris.
  2447.     “Get down!” Jaeger shouted, leaping from his scooter and lying prone on the grass as he covered his head. Baker and the flock did likewise, and shortly afterwards, a shower of soil and small rocks rained down on them.
  2448.     “It landed nearby,” Ayau said, “we must formulate a new plan!”
  2449.     “No time for that,” Jaeger replied, “follow me.”
  2450.     He led them over the hill, his laser pistol in hand as he peeked over the rise, keeping out of view. The pod was much larger up close, it was about the size of a semi-trailer. Just like all of the Bug biotech, it appeared to be made from a combination of organic and synthetic armor. The 'flesh' that held it all together was uneven and rough, like someone had sculpted it from off-green putty and then had left it to harden. It had cratered deep into the ground, the trees around it were snapped, and there was fresh earth everywhere. The armored hull of the pod was still hot enough that he could feel it on his face, even from a distance.
  2451.     As he watched, hatches on the sides popped open, as if the pod was ejecting sections of its carapace. The pieces of armor landed heavily nearby, digging furrows in the turf. From the holes poured Betelgeusian Drones, like insects burrowing out of an open wound, their shiny shells catching the light in iridescent hues that Jaeger might have described as beautiful under different circumstances.
  2452.     They stood about five feet tall if one included the pronged horns that sprouted from their heads, insectoid in appearance, with two legs and four jointed arms that held shields and weapons. They had two large, compound eyes that seemed to glow a subtle green, the mandibles that served as their mouths clacking and chattering as they dropped to the grass. Jaeger knew enough about them to know that those were helmets that they were wearing, and that much of their jewel-like shell was actually synthetic body armor designed to complement and reinforce their natural defenses.
  2453.     No two were the same. They came in a rainbow of colors, reds and oranges, shades of blue and green. Their ornate horns too were subtly different from one individual to another, perhaps serving as a way to tell them apart. Despite all of their chittering and clicking, the Bugs didn't speak, they communicated only through pheromones and chemical signatures. They even 'wrote' in smells, by smearing the pheromones on objects and surfaces.
  2454.     Jaeger watched as a dozen of them emerged from the pod, the insects checking their weapons. They wielded plasma pistols sculpted from some kind of orange resin, as well as handheld energy shields that could be ignited to create a barrier of magnetically-contained plasma. More sinister were the ceremonial daggers sheathed in recesses on their thighs, which they would bring out in close quarters and use to shred the opposition with all the mercy of a praying mantis eating an aphid.
  2455.     The Bugs popped their shields, flaring brightly as the plasma that the wrist-mounted devices projected took an oval shape, then they began to move inwards towards the city.
  2456.     “They must have been knocked off course by something,” Baker muttered. “Let them pass us by.”
  2457.     “There are hundreds of homes between them and the city,” Maza hissed as she grabbed his wrist to get his attention. “We can't let them go!”
  2458.     “I count thirteen Bugs,” Baker whispered, “and there are only seven of us.”
  2459.     “But we have the element of surprise,” Coza added. Baker looked to Jaeger, who nodded in agreement.
  2460.     “Alright,” Jaeger said, “but I'm making the plan this time. Form a firing line on the hill, we have some elevation on them, let's just hope that these laser guns do their job.”
  2461.     “Oh, they'll do their job,” Xico said. “These things will cook a Bug inside its shell.”
  2462.     “Steamed lobster,” Baker chuckled. “Shame we didn't bring any butter with us.”
  2463.     “More like microwaved lobster,” she replied, “whatever a lobster is.”
  2464.     “On my count,” Jaeger ordered as he raised his pistol. “Three, two, one...”
  2465.     They scrambled up the grassy hill in unison, the humans taking aim with their pistols and the Valbarans lying prone with their blocky rifles. Besides for an electrical whir, the weapons were completely silent, and as Jaeger pulled the trigger of his handgun, he noted that there was no recoil either. He was used to firing a projectile of some sort, but these weapons fired a nigh-invisible beam of light that had to be held on the target to inflict maximum damage.
  2466.     Immediately, the Bugs that the flock were aiming at lurched as the beams hit them, wisps of smoke pouring from the impact points like they were action figures being melted under the lens of a magnifying glass. Three dropped to the floor before the rest were even aware that they were being attacked, twitching and screeching as the heat cooked them from the inside out. The rest turned, scurrying to take cover behind nearby trees and holding up their shields to protect themselves. The Valbarans shot through the barriers of shifting plasma, and while the shields couldn't stop the beam outright, they did refract the light enough that it seemed to make the lasers ineffectual.
  2467.     Two more Bugs dropped with smoking holes in their carapaces, and then the insects began to return fire. Bolts of green plasma flew at the hill, bursting into flames where they impacted the grass and searing the tree trunks, the party scattering.
  2468.     The Valbarans were remarkably coordinated, they must have trained for this extensively, they had a plan for every scenario. The LCD panels on their suits were flashing signals, coordinating as two of them began to flank while the other three laid down suppressing fire. They pulsed their weapons, igniting bark, and burning exposed body parts.
  2469.     Jaeger and Baker went left, sliding down the hill and moving towards the wreck of the drop pod. Jaeger managed to get a hit on one of the drones, these laser weapons were pinpoint accurate, the Bug screeching and lowering its shield as it clawed at one of its compound eyes. He must have blinded it. Both he and Baker seized the opportunity to roast it, the creature seizing as they melted its organs through its armor. Aiming might be easy, but holding the weapon on a precise point while the target was moving was actually very difficult.
  2470.     Now the numbers had been evened out, and the Bugs quickly found themselves surrounded. One popped out of cover to fire at the hill with its plasma pistol, narrowly missing one of the prone Valbarans, and she returned fire with her laser rifle. The Bug's head slagged and caved in on itself as she kept the beam trained on it, a shimmering green line from Jaeger's vantage point. It wasn't killed outright, the aliens were notorious for surviving headshots, as their brains extended into their torsos. The Drone crumpled to the ground as it cooked, its limbs waving, crippled by the laser. She kept the beam focused on it until it lay still, the smell of burning meat reaching Jaeger's nose.
  2471.     Wishing that he had a good old XMR, he took refuge behind the pod. Black smoke still billowed from it, and the metal panels on its hull glowed a dull orange from the heat of reentry. He popped in and out of cover, as did Baker, the humans harassing the Bugs as best they could.
  2472.     Two more went down, then a third, leaving only three of them left by Baker's count. Coza suddenly broke ranks, slinging her rifle across her back. She closed the distance like a speeding cheetah, skidding to a halt in the midst of the invaders before they had even had time to turn their weapons on her. It was like watching video footage being played back at double speed, Coza tearing into the nearest Bug with practiced precision, harrying it with a flurry of blows to its chest and face. The brass knuckles that she wore worked exactly as described, the drone's tough, ruby-red shell cracking and fracturing where her punches landed. It was like something out of a martial arts movie, the Bug stumbling backwards as she advanced on it, fragments of shell falling to the ground as the cracking sound took on a distinctly wetter quality.
  2473.     Her adversary fell to the grass in a shuddering heap, the pale flesh on its head and torso exposed beneath the shattered carapace, thick ichor that had the color and consistency of maple syrup leaking from its wounds.
  2474.     The next Bug turned to face her, holding twin plasma pistols in its upper pair of hands, and reaching down to its thighs with the lower. It unsheathed its daggers, the two blades glinting in the light, their ornately decorated design reminding Jaeger of Damascus steel.
  2475.     Coza hissed something in her native tongue, darting towards her challenger, raising one of the pistols as it fired it. The bolt shot through the canopy above, raining burning foliage down on the pair as they wrestled. Coza was having none of it, parrying blows from its knives with her knuckles, sparks flying as metal hit metal. She gripped its wrist in one hand, placing a foot against its chest, and pulled.
  2476.     Bug bodily fluids sprayed the nearby tree trunk as she ripped its arm from its socket, leaving an oozing wound that looked like torn crab meat, then she cast the arm to the ground nearby and delivered a kick like a kangaroo. Her boots hit its chest, and it was knocked clear off its feet, landing on its back a short distance away.
  2477.     The second remaining Drone went for her, but it was turned into a smoking husk by concentrated laser fire as soon as it bolted from cover. Coza wasn't done. She crouched over the Bug, warding off desperate knife strikes, delivering a series of ruthless punches that turned its head to mush. It finally went limp, and she rose to full height, wiping the ichor that coated her fists on the leg of her suit as she panted.
  2478.     The rest of the group moved in, waving their weapons back and forth as they checked for stragglers. It seemed that they had taken them all out. Jaeger slipped his laser pistol into his pocket and leaned down to pick up one of the Bug plasma pistols, an orange-colored weapon with two prongs that looked like it had been crudely molded from some kind of plastic. The firing mechanism would be confusing to someone who wasn’t already familiar with Bug firearms. Rather than a trigger, the handle was pressure-sensitive, firing off a shot when the grip strength exceeded a certain threshold.
  2479.     “This is more my style,” he muttered. “You alright, Coza?”
  2480.     She turned to face him, her visor flipping up. Her violet eyes looked wild, she had just worked through a lot of pent-up anger and resentment based on what she had told him back in the lounge.
  2481.     “I feel better,” she growled. Jaeger looked past her at the corpse of the Bug, its head looked like a cockroach that had recently been stamped on by a shoe.
  2482.     “There are plenty more Bugs to kill, Coza. Let's get moving.”
  2483.  
  2484. ***
  2485.    
  2486.     Jaeger looked over his shoulder at the spires of the city in the distance as they raced towards the airport on their scooters. Plumes of black smoke were still rising from where the pods had impacted, choking the blue sky with ash, what looked like fires from damaged buildings joining them. There were Valbaran landers flying about too, camouflaged in their signature blue and grey, making low passes as they fired at the ground. Every so often, a trail of glowing plasma would rise from between the buildings like AA fire, scattering them. There were yet more pods raining from the sky, some of them exploding in the air as the defensive laser batteries strobed them with glittering beams.
  2487.     War had found Valbara.
  2488.     “What is that?” Baker asked. “Listen.”
  2489.     Jaeger listened, and he heard the unmistakable crack of railgun fire. It was coming from ahead of them, from the spaceport.
  2490.     “Friendlies at the spaceport?” Jaeger asked.
  2491.     “Sounds like it,” he replied. “I wish I had a helmet so that I could patch into the local comms.”
  2492.     “We'll be coming up on the spaceport in a few minutes,” Maza said, “be ready.”
  2493.     Jaeger rummaged in his pocket for his phone, struggling to keep his scooter balanced as he switched his attention from the path to the screen. He didn't have access to encrypted military channels, but he could put a call through to the Rorke and have fleet command relay his message to anyone on the network. If there was indeed a firefight going on at the airport, then they didn't want to get caught in a crossfire or get mistakenly fired on. A railgun slug would go straight through a Bug, a tree trunk, and then through one or more of them without shedding much velocity at all.
  2494.     He held the device up to his ear, maneuvering around the winding turns as he waited for a reply.
  2495.     “This is Fleetcom, report.”
  2496.     The woman on the other end sounded stressed, there was probably a lot of shit going on up in space, he'd better be concise.
  2497.     “This is Lieutenant Jaeger, I have two UNN pilots and a squad of Valbarans coming up on the Yilgarn spaceport. Please let any personnel still on the ground know that we're coming.”
  2498.     “Roger that Lieutenant, I'll see what I can do.”
  2499.     As they rounded one of the obscuring hills, they finally spotted the far end of the mag-lev rail and the station that lay just outside the entrance to the spaceport. It was so hard to get a bearing on where you were in this damned city, your line of sight was always blocked. If he hadn't been able to see the white glint of the rail vanishing into the trees, Jaeger would have had no idea that he was near the runway.
  2500.     The sounds of a gun battle were much closer now, there was definitely an intense fight going on. Was it possible that the Bugs were assaulting the port and the locals were defending it? It would make sense, the Bugs would want to stop reinforcements from reaching space, where they were already at a disadvantage.
  2501.     “They know we're coming...I hope,” Jaeger said as he and the rest of the group abandoned their scooters to proceed on foot. “Keep your wits about you, watch out for crossfire.”
  2502.     They made their way into the forest, avoiding the pathway that led towards the gate to the spaceport. Jaeger led them to the base of the white wall that encircled the compound, reasoning that it was safer than approaching from directly behind the attacking Bugs. The wall was too high for even the Valbarans to vault over, and so they followed it towards the entrance, the sounds of gunfire growing louder.
  2503.     Iridescent shells glinted between the dense trees, and the party immediately took cover behind the thick trunks, beginning to fire on them. Valbaran lasers melted through chitin, and plasma bolts from the pistol that Jaeger had recovered burned ugly holes in their carapaces. It looked like they were trying to get through the gate up ahead, they were tightly packed, dozens of them climbing over one another in their attempt to break through. Some of them were trying to claw their way up the wall, but they didn't seem to be able to get a grip, just like the probe the day before.
  2504.     The Bugs at the rear of the pack turned to face them and dove into cover, returning fire. The chatter of automatic XMRs was deafening now, they had to find a way through.
  2505.     “Friendlies!” Jaeger shouted at the top of his voice after waiting for a lull in the fighting. “Friendlies!”
  2506.     Someone shouted back to him, but he couldn't hear what they said, snapping back behind a tree as a Bug plasma bolt singed the bark where his head had just been. The insects were now diverting some of their forces to deal with the new arrivals, two dozen of them advancing through the foliage as they laid down suppressing fire. The aliens weren't stupid, they were capable of thinking tactically, and they were well-coordinated.
  2507.     Maza and her flock fired back, but they would soon be overwhelmed if they stayed in this position for too long. Just when he was considering calling a retreat, Jaeger heard a more distinct, commanding voice rise above the din. He recognized it as Colonel Roberts.
  2508.     “Go Reesh, bring them in!”
  2509.     Something powered through the crowd of Bugs like a battering ram, swinging a massive riot shield to send them flying through the air as if they were bowling pins. It was a Krell, sixteen feet of armor and muscle, rumbling like an angry alligator as he scattered the Drones. He was holding a light machine gun variant of the XMR platform in his other hand, firing from the hip, plasma bolts splashing harmlessly against his immense shield and his armored poncho. The slugs chewed through the enemy and tore them in half at the waist, felling Bugs and trees alike, wood splintering as the giant plants toppled to the ground and shook the earth. He swept his tail, slamming a nearby Drone against a trunk and crushing it, using his shield to squash another.
  2510.     “Krell'nay, over here!” Ayau shouted. She peeked out from cover for a moment, training her laser rifle on a drone that was rushing her. It crumpled and fell, smoke billowing from between its mouthparts as she toasted its organs.
  2511.     Reesh turned his long snout towards them, digging his clawed toes into the soil as he charged forwards. Krell were usually docile and slow, they were good-natured and friendly creatures under normal circumstances, they wouldn't hurt a fly. But woe betide anyone who threatened a Krell's friends, the giant reptiles would move heaven and earth to ensure their safety.
  2512.     The Krell came towards them like a freight train made of bony scutes and teeth, using his sheer weight to slam the Bugs against trees and to crush them underfoot. He was moving faster than anyone would have imagined possible after seeing one for the first time. The Krell could call upon their energy stores in dire situations, burning fat like a fuel to send them into an anabolic frenzy.
  2513.     From behind him, a squad of UNN Marines wearing their trademark black body armor emerged from the gate, taking advantage of the chaos to form a firing line and pushing the enemy back. There were Valbarans with them too, clad in forest camo and wielding XMRs, they must be the ones that had been training with the Colonel.
  2514.     Reesh cleared a path of destruction between Jaeger's group and the gate, turning to defend them with his shield as they broke from cover. It was as tall and as wide as the average door, and it was two or three inches thick, the glowing bolts of plasma unable to penetrate it.
  2515.     Ayau leapt up onto his back when she was close enough, clambering up his poncho and gripping the bony scutes around his neck, firing over his shoulder as he began to lumber forwards. The rest of the group stayed close behind, firing at the occasional Bug that had escaped the Krell's rampage intact, the insectoids rushing at them from between the trees with their knives drawn.
  2516.     When they reached the gate to the spaceport, Reesh once again turned to face the Bugs, plugging the breach almost entirely with his bulk as the Marines backed up. They kept their weapons trained on the swarms of Drones, gunning more of them down as they retreated to safety, two of them dragging an injured Marine as the Valbarans covered them.
  2517.     Jaeger and his companions piled inside, making their way over towards the hangars, there wasn't a second to waste. It looked as if all of the Marines who had been deployed to the surface of Valbara to help train the locals had holed up here, they had built a kind of makeshift forward operating base out of the nearest hangar.
  2518.     There were people talking into headsets, others were tending to the wounded, and still more were rushing past with armfuls of magazines to resupply the soldiers who were holding the gate. There were two smoldering drop pods that had landed inside the spaceport, but fortunately, they hadn't destroyed the runway.
  2519.     Colonel Roberts came jogging out of the hangar as they approached, Jaeger and Baker saluting him.
  2520.     “You're the two Beewolf pilots, right? Good, get your birds into the air, they need you up there.”
  2521.     “Do you need us to escort your dropships into orbit?” Jaeger asked.
  2522.     “Negative, our orders are to hold this spaceport and keep it open so that reinforcements can land once the skies are clear.”
  2523.     “Roger that, Sir,” Baker said. “Keep your men off the runway while the Valbarans taxi, they'll be following us up.”
  2524.     “Give 'em hell,” Roberts replied.
  2525.  
  2526. CHAPTER 17: LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
  2527.  
  2528.     Baker and Jaeger ran into the hangar where their ships were parked, quickly donning their flight suits and helmets as the Valbarans made their way over to their camouflaged lander. By the time the two humans were climbing into their cockpits and running their engine checks, the Valbaran spaceplane was already taxiing towards the runway.
  2529.     Jaeger taxied outside, his HUD flashing as it showed him the system status. The Beewolf hadn't been refueled, but they had more than enough gas to get into orbit and to do a little fighting before they had to land again. The vectoring nozzle on the main engine flexed and twisted, thrusters rotating and belching blue flame, the ailerons moving like the vessel was stretching after a long nap. Jaeger turned his visor towards the sky, the cameras mounted all around the hull allowing him to see through it, and he watched as his ship's computer began to track friendlies. He could see the Rorke and some of her torpedo boats, the callsigns of dozens of fighter craft and dropships twinkling to life on his display. It was a madhouse up there.
  2530.     He took off in VTOL, Baker rising into the sky alongside him, his landing gear retracting with a clunk. Unlike the Valbaran landers, the Beewolfs didn't need to use a runway. They hovered nearby, waiting as the lander began to accelerate down the asphalt track, its stubby wings catching the air and generating enough lift to get it off the ground.
  2531.     Their engines flared as they began to climb, Baker and Jaeger taking up position to either side of the lander as they tailed it into the sky. They rose through the cloud layer, flames beginning to lick at Jaeger's canopy, the blue sky growing darker as they ascended towards space.
  2532.     “Comms check,” he said, “you guys picking me up?”
  2533.     “Loud and clear,” Baker replied.
  2534.     “We hear you,” Maza added.
  2535.     As the stars began to twinkle, the battle raging above came into view. The white rings of the planetary defense platforms trailed off into the distance in both directions, circling the equator of the planet like a giant pearl necklace, their laser batteries firing at the smaller vessels that were swarming them. The sky was packed with ships, dozens of icons appearing on Jaeger's HUD as the computer tried to track them all.
  2536.     Beewolfs darted back and forth as they danced with Betelgeusian attack craft, popping flares as they dodged missiles and volleys of plasma, their angular hulls only visible when they caught the light of the star due to their stealth coating. Valbaran fighters strafed the enemy with concentrated laser fire as they flew in tight formation, coordinating to melt through the carapaces of the Bug ships, the long hulls and rotating toruses of their carriers illuminated by laser batteries as they supported their squadrons.
  2537.     Torpedo frigates hung in the darkness, seeming to stand still in comparison to the more agile craft, the massive ships engaging the larger Bug vessels. Jaeger watched as a torpedo slammed into one of the smaller Betelgeusian carriers, identical to the one that he had encountered in the Oort cloud, tearing its lobster-like hull open with a burst of orange flame and sending it drifting towards the planet's gravity well. More of those Bug carriers were attacking the nearby defense platforms, using their enormous claws to rend metal, tearing the rings of the stations apart like giant can openers.
  2538.     The CIWS frigates and the Valbaran carriers were attempting to defend them, lines of tracer fire and laser beams spraying in all directions, their cannons tracking nearby fighters and intercepting plasma torpedoes. It seemed as if a few of the stations had been equipped with railguns, but not nearly as many as Campbell had intended, the majority of the batteries were still firing green laser beams.
  2539.     Penguin gunships, so named for the shapes of their bulbous hulls and their stubby wings, strafed Bug carriers with their nose cannons. They peppered their armored carapaces with molten holes as more Bug fighters emerged from the pustules along their backs like flies burrowing their way out of a corpse. Valbaran landers and UNN dropships flew to and fro, carrying personnel and supplies to where they were needed, dropping troops directly onto the hulls of the defense platforms to repel boarders. There were firefights happening on the rotating rings themselves, Coalition soldiers and Valbarans with magnetic boots engaging Drones on the outer hull, fighting their own private wars. At maximum magnification, Jaeger could just make them out. Figures the size of ants exchanged fire, the dead Bugs losing their purchase and drifting into the void.
  2540.     Trails from torpedoes, bright pulses of laser fire, and streams of tracer rounds lit up the night. The glowing hulls of wrecked ships floated aimlessly amidst spreading clouds of slagged metal.
  2541.     “It's a madhouse up here,” Baker said over the comms, “where's the Rorke?”
  2542.     Jaeger looked in the direction of the North pole, magnifying the image with his visor. After a moment of searching, he found her. She was belly-up relative to the battle, the dozens of railguns on flexible arms that were mounted along her underside tracking targets independently, turning the vessel into a mobile weapons platform. There was a steady stream of smaller craft heading to and from her hangars for resupply and refueling, the shimmering force fields shining blue against her ocean-grey hull. The carrier was a fair distance away, maintaining position so that the crew could coordinate with the defense platforms and carriers around the planet no doubt.
  2543.     It seemed as if the hive fleet had decided to throw all of its forces at one small section of the equatorial defense array, attempting to brute force its way through. There were two hive ships, massive, nearly Rorke-sized vessels that played a similar role in the Bug armada. One of them was hovering some distance above them, raining down drop pods on the cities below, too small and too fast for the Valbaran stations to track them. The second seemed to be moving off towards the Rorke, flanked by a swarm of Bug torpedo boats and fighters. The hive ships almost looked like giant shrimps to Jaeger, massive sheets of metal plating like a suit of armor covering their hulls as an added layer of protection on top of their bony carapaces, dozens of spindly legs protruding from beneath the overlapping plates of the shell which allowed the things to land on the surface of a planet and disgorge their ground forces. There were no windows or viewports visible, the vessels were covered in biological eyes that served as cameras for the pilots. There were clusters of sensors and long antennae protruding from their bulbous hulls in every direction.
  2544.     “Looks like that hive ship is going straight for the Rorke,” Jaeger warned. “I'm trying to patch through to fleetcom, but there's so much chatter. We need to find out where they want us.”
  2545.     “Heads up!” Baker shouted, pulling up sharply as a CIWS frigate rose in front of them like a whale breaching the surface of the ocean. Jaeger cursed, pulling back on his stick, his suit tightening around his legs to prevent all of his blood from pooling in his feet as the G-forces tore at him. The frigate's grey, blocky hull shot past beneath him, point defense turrets swiveling to track the cockroach-like fighters that were chasing it. Bursts of green plasma reflected off their colorful, iridescent hulls, their jointed legs tucked beneath their bodies. They darted and weaved, the frigate rolling on its axis and spraying cannon fire as the pilot maneuvered, plowing through a field of slagged debris and scattering it as it burned away.
  2546.     “Watch your fucking proximity sensors,” Baker barked, “it's a fucking free for all.”
  2547.     Fleet engagements usually happened at longer ranges than this, Baker was right, this wasn't so much a space battle as a brawl. Collisions with other ships and debris would be as much a danger as the enemy.
  2548.     “My God, look,” Jaeger gasped. One of the defense platforms some distance below them was being set upon by a Bug carrier, the behemoth using its crab-like claws to tear it apart. The spinning centrifuge that was situated on the interior of the torus-shaped structure came to a jarring halt as one of the claws closed around it, cutting through the ring like a pair of scissors, the nearby laser batteries turning their beams towards the creature in an attempt to ward it off. A nearby CIWS frigate joined the fight, the carrier's carapace melting under the heat, railguns and cannons blowing chunks of meat and metal out of its segmented body. The thrusters along its flanks faltered, the green methane flames that they spewed sputtering out, but the damage had already been done.
  2549.     The defense platform broke apart, its structural integrity compromised, one of the claws of the carrier still grasping the section of ring as it drifted out of its orbit. The two remained locked together, a cloud of debris and crystallized bodily fluids spreading as the wreckage began to tumble, a solitary fighter emerging from one of the fleshy sheaths to escape its doomed host.
  2550.     “Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, please respond.”
  2551.     Finally, the voice of a fleetcom operator came through in Jaeger's earpiece.
  2552.     “This is Bullseye, receiving you loud and clear, command.”
  2553.     “Nice of you to join us. Your objective is to protect the Valbaran defense platforms. Intercept incoming fighters, and prevent Bug dropships from depositing their troops on the hull. How copy?”
  2554.     “Copy that, fleetcom, we're on it.” He switched channels back to local, banking off towards the nearest station. “You get that, Baker?”
  2555.     “Got it,” he replied, “I'm on your nine o'clock.”
  2556.     “Maza?”
  2557.     “We can't let them take down another station,” she spat, “we're following you in.”
  2558.     “Do you have any weapons on that thing?” he asked, looking to his right as the lander took up formation beside him. As he watched, a panel on the near side of the vessel slid back like the door of a minivan, exposing a Valbaran in a space suit. She was holding what looked like a laser battery mounted on a flexible arm, thick cables trailing inside the vessel and out of view to link it to the power system, her body secured in a harness.
  2559.     “We've got one of these,” she said, Coza's voice coming through on the comms. Of course it was Coza...
  2560.     “Alright, me and Baker and going to go after the fighters, you'd probably do better to support the troops fighting on the hull. Give them some ground support. Er...space support. Whatever, just shoot Bugs. We'll escort you until you're in range.”
  2561.     “Got it,” Maza said, the lander peeling off and dropping down towards one of the white rings. As the station grew larger, one of the Bug fighters that was hovering around it spotted them, changing course and rising towards the lander on a plume of green fire. Jaeger deployed his railgun, the hatch on the hull of his Beewolf opening and the weapon extending, swiveling to aim at the incoming threat as a targeting reticle appeared on his HUD. His missiles went hot, and the port that concealed his twenty-five-millimeter cannon popped open, his systems locking onto the Bug ship.
  2562.     The railgun led the target, the ship's computer calculating its trajectory, the magnetic coils glowing as it accelerated carefully-aimed slugs the size of beer bottles. The first two missed, but the third hit it right in the head, or perhaps it would be better described as the cockpit. Either way, the slug drilled into its hull right between its shimmering, compound eyes. Jaeger watched through his magnified visor as it seemed to lose engine control, and was sent spinning off into the void.
  2563.     Several more of its fellows rose to meet them, each one reflecting the harsh, unfiltered sunlight in a different hue. There was a Bug carrier nearby, more of them emerging from the fleshy hangars along its lobster tail, tucking their legs beneath their armored bodies and pivoting to intercept the Beewolfs as their host made for the platform.
  2564.     “Hit 'em with the missiles!” Baker said. Jaeger locked onto several targets, thumbing the release, the tubes detaching from beneath his wings. They floated, inert for a moment, and then their guidance systems came to life. Their engines flared, leaving streaks of chemical residue behind them as they sped towards the fighters.
  2565.     The Bugs loosed a volley of torpedoes, and when the two clouds of projectiles crossed one another, a few of them exploded. Balls of expanding plasma and orange plumes of fire forced Jaeger's visor to darken to protect his eyes, his computer warning him that he was being locked. He broke formation, releasing a pattern of bright flares as the Bug torpedoes emerged from the cloud, the organic sensors on their stubby noses tracking him.
  2566.     Many of them veered off course to follow the decoys, others tailing him, Jaeger's peripheral vision narrowing as he pulled off high-G maneuvers. Several of their own missiles found their marks, thinning the numbers of the Bug squadron, shattered carapace and molten metal carried by momentum as their ruined bodies tumbled through the blackness.
  2567.     Maza's lander had neared the surface of the defense platform, Coza firing the door gun at the Bugs that were crawling across its white surface below. There were UNN Marines and Valbaran commandos defending the airlocks, preventing the Drones from overrunning the station, using the large communications arrays and other unidentifiable machinery that jutted from the hull for cover.
  2568.     They were mostly standing on the outer ring, where the laser batteries and the small number of grafted railguns were mounted, the inner ring spinning like a centrifuge to make up for the lack of artificial gravity generators. It must be fucking with their heads, space combat could be so bizarre compared to fighting on the ground. The only horizon was the curving hull of the station, there was no atmospheric haze, and so objects were as clearly visible at ten feet away as a thousand. The soldiers walked slowly, ensuring that their magnetic boots had enough purchase lest they float away. In zero-G, once your feet left the deck, you were fucked. You could slowly run out of oxygen and suffocate a mere arm's length from safety, because there was no medium to push back against or swim through in order to cover the distance.
  2569.     The Bugs, on the other hand, used their clawed limbs to cling to the metal precariously. They swarmed towards the defenders with reckless abandon, those that lost their purchase and tumbled into space seeming to be considered acceptable losses. Bolts of plasma reflected on the hull as they exchanged fire with the Marines, Valbaran laser beams cutting them down in swathes, the railguns invisible at such great distance save for the enemies that they felled. The Bug assault seemed desperate, even for Betelgeusians. The fleet must be on its last legs, running out of resources and perhaps literally starving.
  2570.     As Jaeger tailed a Bug fighter, his cannon chewing into it and sending it tumbling, he glanced over at the Rorke. The hive ship was bearing down on it, recognizing the UNN carrier as the linchpin of the planet's defense, no doubt. The carrier's array of railguns were hammering it, an unimaginable quantity of firepower brought to bear, the massive slugs digging craters in the vessel's armor like asteroids. Torpedo tubes along its hull opened to release their payloads, and the point defense systems painted bright trails across the velvet blackness. It wasn't enough, however. The hive ships were designed to take punishment, and as he watched, its complement of Bug torpedo ships released the projectiles that were clutched in their spindly legs. A cloud of glowing green points sped towards the Rorke, the railguns switching targets and the surrounding CIWS frigates intercepting the missiles with streams of tracer fire.
  2571.     They weren’t able to intercept all of them, some of the torpedoes making it through. The carrier was usually defended by far more of the frigates, but so many of them were spread out in their defense of the platforms. Green balls of expanding plasma melted sections of the Rorke's hull, one of the frigates taking one directly in its center of mass, its engines losing power as it began to drift towards the atmosphere of the planet. There were small bursts of flame as escape pods jettisoned, the vessel was dead in the water, an ugly tear along its hull spewing coolant like blood. It looked like the nuclear generator had taken a hit, and Jaeger hoped that the wreck wouldn't end up landing in a Valbaran ocean or a nature preserve.
  2572.     He could see the way that the superheated gas had slagged molten holes in the Rorke, exposing some of the interior decks to space. She was injured, but not crippled, her railguns continuing to pulverize the hive ship as it came into plasma cannon range and began to fire.
  2573.     A volley of UNN torpedoes took out a few of the Bug support vessels, splashing against the side of the hive ship's bony carapace, some of its massive segmented legs breaking off and parts of its metal armor melting under the heat. Jaeger turned his head to see that two torpedo frigates had changed their course, slowly accelerating as they burned towards the Rorke. Hatches on their hulls opened to release massive missiles the size of ICBMs, rising on plumes of flame before pivoting towards their targets and speeding away.
  2574.     The fighters that were following the hive ship changed course, as did many of the torpedo ships, heading towards the two incoming frigates. A formation of Beewolfs raced past the larger vessels, off to intercept the attackers.
  2575.     Jaeger wanted to go help, but something popped up on his HUD, a red dot making for Maza's lander. He scarcely had a second to catch his breath, grimacing as he pulled off a tight course correction and throttled up, heading the Bug fighter off. It was entirely focused on the defense platform, and he took it out easily, railgun slugs punching smoldering holes in it. As it trailed fluid and fell towards the station, the droplets of ichor and chemical fuel freezing into a shining cloud, one of the lasers turned on it and melted it with a flickering strobe of green light. The lasers were actually very effective at warding off the fighters at close range, it was the clawed carriers that were the biggest threat.
  2576.     As he swooped closer to the surface of the station, he could make out a pack of Borealan shock troopers, their massive, bayoneted rifles shouldered as they led a charge against an incoming swarm of Bugs. They dove into the fray, their six-foot railguns powerful enough to blow fist-sized holes in the carapaces of the Drones, shattered bodies floating off into the air. One of them was taken out by a hulking Warrior, the armored creature using its claws to dismember the alien. The monsters were eight or nine feet tall and built like organic tanks, their bodies shielded by thick, layered shells that ran down their backs to give them the appearance of a bipedal lobster or an isopod. They sported four crab-like claws that could tear through the hull of a tank like it was paper.
  2577.     Another Borealan was thrown flailing from the hull while its pack surrounded the Warrior and harried it with blows. Hopefully, they would be picked up when the battle was over, assuming that they didn't crash into a ship or a piece of scrap.
  2578.     Jaeger climbed, the massive station shrinking to the size of a cartwheel in seconds, Baker taking up formation beside him.
  2579.     “The Rorke is taking a lot of fire,” he said over the comms channel, his voice crackling with static. “If the carrier goes down, then we're fucked.”
  2580.     Jaeger scoped in on the vessel, the hive ship was right on top of it now, firing broadsides of plasma at it. The Rorke was still belly-up, the railguns digging into the attacker's hull. Fighters from both sides swarmed, a fireworks display of point defense and flak flashing brightly. It seemed like the UNN torpedo frigates had taken out most of their Bug equivalents, there was a veritable graveyard of burning husks floating nearby, the two vessels now turning their formidable firepower on the hive ship. The nearby defense platforms and Valbaran carriers were now directing their lasers and what railguns they could muster towards the hive ship too, the sheer volume of fire was starting to break through the organic vessel's defenses.
  2581.     Jaeger cheered as a massive explosion suddenly ripped through the hive ship, something in the aft section had ignited, the shrimp-like tail breaking clean off. It was more a wound than anything resembling damage to a ship, its metallic skeleton exposed, its living flesh charred and blackened. It spewed what must be millions of gallons of fluid, some of which was clearly chemical fuel due to the way that it was burning, smaller explosions making the remainder of its bulbous body shudder.
  2582.     The Rorke had prevailed, the hive ship's cannons ceasing their bombardment and its rows of methane thrusters going dark. It keeled over onto its side, Valbara's gravity well seizing it, pulling it down towards the surface. Its segmented legs flailed, almost as if it was in actual pain, smaller wounds all over its hull spewing flames and shooting jets of gas.
  2583.     “Fuck yeah!” Baker shouted, “look at that thing burn!”
  2584.     Maza's voice came through on the radio too, along with what sounded like her flock hollering loudly in the background.
  2585.     “The enemy vessel is crippled! The battle turns in our favor!”
  2586.     “Hang on,” Jaeger replied warily, “where's the second hive ship? If it decides to engage the Rorke, I don't know if she can take it.”
  2587.     The carrier was damaged, not severely, but enough that going a second round with another hive ship was a very bad idea. It didn't look like any of her critical systems had gone down. She had engine power, and her guns were still firing, turning their barrels towards the remaining Bug armada. Her hull was pockmarked with plasma burns, and there were several places where torpedoes had burned through several layers of armor, however. She would need weeks in drydock to recover. He could already make out dropships assessing the damage with their floodlights.
  2588.     “There!” Baker said, “ninety degrees low!”
  2589.     The second hive ship wasn't engaging the Rorke at all, it was making straight for the breach in the defense grid where one of the platforms had been brought down. The lasers from the adjacent stations held on it, the nearby CWIS boats and the Valbaran vessels adding their firepower to the bombardment and melting through the layers of metal plating, but it wasn't enough to stop it. The torpedo frigates had been duped, they had burned away to defend the Rorke. Now they launched more of their torpedoes at the second hive ship, but their reserves must be running low, and there was no way that they could deliver enough ordnance to cripple the target in time. The Rorke was too far away, and the CWIS vessels couldn't do much to penetrate its thick carapace.
  2590.     “If that ship makes landfall, it's going to deliver a whole army of Bugs to the surface,” Jaeger warned. “There could be a hundred thousand Drones on that thing.”
  2591.     “It's headed straight for Yilgarn!” Maza added, “we have to stop it!”
  2592.     “How?” Baker asked, “we don't have enough firepower to bring that thing down.”
  2593.     As they watched, the hive ship turned belly-down, flames beginning to scorch its underside as it entered the atmosphere. Jaeger was already at full throttle, pinned against his seat as he chased after it. He didn't even have a plan yet, he didn't know what he was going to do, but he had to figure out something. He wracked his brain, with mere seconds to come up with a strategy. What did he know about hive ships, what resources were at his disposal?
  2594.     They used highly reactive methane as chemical fuel, they were coated in layers of armor so thick that no weapon in his arsenal would have any hope of penetrating it. There was no bridge in the traditional sense, and the pilot was housed deep inside the ship. They had to have a weak point, something that he could use...
  2595.     “The thrusters!” Jaeger yelled.
  2596.     “What are you talking about?” Baker asked. His Beewolf was a short distance behind Jaeger's, he didn't know what the plan was either, but he wasn't about to leave his wingman to fend for himself. They were smaller and more agile than the hive ship, and the atmosphere was slowing it, letting them catch up.
  2597.     “The thrusters along its flanks, the green flames,” Jaeger explained. “That's how it's slowing itself, it's angling the thrusters down towards the planet to shed velocity.”
  2598.     “So?”
  2599.     “So, if we take out enough of those thrusters, it's going to fall like a fucking rock. We don't need to destroy the ship, we can let gravity do it for us.”
  2600.     “It's already in the atmosphere,” Baker replied. “Do you really think that we can get close enough to it, and stay stable enough for the railguns to target the thrusters, and also keep ourselves from burnin' up? You can't do maneuvers during reentry, you'll tumble, and then you'll go up like a Roman candle. There's no algorithm for targetin' the thrusters either, we'd have to do it manually.”
  2601.     “Do you have a better idea?”
  2602.     “Fuck!” Baker cursed. “Alright, you take the left flank, and I'll take the right. If hell has a fuckin' bar, then you're buyin' for the rest of eternity you crazy bastard.”
  2603.     “Jaeger!” Maza's voice came in over his comms, she sounded distraught. “You can't! It's too dangerous!”
  2604.     “We have to,” he replied solemnly, “there's no other way.”
  2605.     “But you said that you'd stay with us. We've only just...”
  2606.     “We can do this,” he said, trying to sound confident. “If that hive ship touches down, then everything is over, I can't let that happen. Even if...if this goes badly...know that I don't have any regrets,” he said as his nose began to glow orange, flames licking at his canopy as the hive ship ballooned in his field of view. “After last night, this was all worth it. Meeting you and the others was worth it.”
  2607.     He couldn't hear her reply, her voice was choked off by interference as his airframe was buffeted by the winds. Baker was still close enough to get through to him, his short range comms fizzing and crackling to the extent that Jaeger could only just make him out.
  2608.     “Great, I'm gonna die with a hangover. Try not to live up to your namesake, Bullseye, and if you die, tell Boomer that he still owes me that twenty creds.”
  2609.     “See you on the other side, Baker.”
  2610.     The two fighters veered off as the hive ship rose up between them like a mountain. It was massive, Jaeger had never seen one up close before, the friction that it was generating was creating a firestorm that made his visor darken to shield his eyes. He too was burning, he had to keep his nose angled down, or he might lose stability and start to tumble. If that happened, then his fighter would burn up and explode before he could so much as hit the ejector button. Not that he could eject at this altitude anyway.
  2611.     He maneuvered as close as he could get, his computer beeping a warning as his hull temperature spiked. A tremor rocked his ship as he extended his airbrakes, alternating between pulsing his main engine and trying to slow his rapid descent, his flight stick vibrating in his hand as he struggled to keep his fighter on course. He deactivated the safety limiters with a voice command and retracted his radiators so that the heat didn't melt them right off. He could no longer rely on the computer to provide flight assistance, it wasn't designed for this. This was not how reentry was supposed to go, he was prolonging his exposure to the incredible heat and friction, he had to get this done as soon as possible.
  2612.     Jaeger turned his head, his visor doing its best to filter out the orange glow of the flames, the hive ship beside him taking up his entire field of view. It was like diving next to a blue whale, how could something of this scale be alive?
  2613.     There. He could see the thrusters that were spaced out along its flank, fleshy, flexible tubes that were belching jets of green fire. They were as much appendages as engines, able to flex and point in any direction, laid out in a vague S-shape along the hull. The thing's massive legs were tucked beneath its body, protecting its belly from the heat.
  2614.     He could no longer communicate with Baker over the short-range radio, not with this Kraken between them. He would have to trust that his friend would come through.
  2615.     Keeping one hand on the flight stick, he took manual control of the railgun with the other, his thumb finding the small joystick on his control panel. It required a finesse that was hard to muster while his vessel was shaking apart, and he had to keep his Beewolf's nose at about a two hundred degree angle relative to the surface of the planet. If he exposed the weapon to the heat of reentry, the mechanical arm would melt away in an instant, it was only designed to be used in a vacuum. Right now, the hull of his ship was the only thing protecting it.
  2616.     The crosshair moved on his visor, and he tried to keep his head steady, even as the turbulence jostled him in his seat. It was like trying to thread a needle during an earthquake.
  2617.     When the targeting reticle passed over one of the thrusters, he pulled the trigger, the railgun firing in burst mode in an attempt to make up for any inaccuracy. There was a flare of green fire, one of the thrusters erupting, popping like a blister and trailing chemical fuel that ignited into a burning stream. He had hit it! It had worked! The thrusters were volatile as all hell, they must be working overtime in an attempt to slow the hive ship's descent.
  2618.     One down, about nine more to go. As he moved the reticle over to the next target, his vessel lurched, the hull temperature warning blaring in his ear. He turned it off with a voice command as he fought against the stick, his vessel threatening to level out and send him into a flat spin. As he returned his thumb to the targeting joystick, he reminded himself that he didn't need to destroy all of the thrusters, just enough that the Bug vessel couldn't slow itself sufficiently. If the hive ship was aware that it was being attacked, it was too large and too cumbersome to take any kind of evasive maneuvers.
  2619.     He didn't have long, he had to get this done quickly. The railgun loosed another burst, Jaeger cursing as he missed, his frustration almost as difficult to manage as his rate of descent. He tried again, breathing deeply in an effort to calm his nerves as he aimed at the next thruster. Every instinct in his body, all of his training was screaming at him to pull away, every neuron in his brain knew how bad of an idea this was.
  2620.     The next burst hit its mark, another engine exploding into a ball of green fire. This time, the hive ship seemed to shudder, was he hurting it?
  2621.     He hit another, then another, at this rate his callsign was going to take on an entirely new meaning. As he took out more of the thrusters, and presumably Baker did the same on the other side, the hive ship began to fall faster. He had to gun his engine, further increasing his temperature to dangerous levels just to match speed with the thing. Soon, it would be falling too fast for him to keep up with it. It must weigh tens of thousands of tons, and its terminal velocity would be many times that of his own. The Beewolf was being pushed to its theoretical limits, the airframe shaking and the stealth coating starting to melt away to expose the naked hull material beneath.
  2622.     Two more thrusters down, and the vessel began to veer off-course, turning slightly as it lost more and more control over its descent. He hit a couple more as fast as he could, the railgun barking as it tore through flesh and metal, burning fuel spewing from the wounds. It was pulling away from him now, he could barely keep up with it, the mammoth vessel falling in earnest. His instincts screamed for him to break off and recover before his hull melted around him, but he dove after it. He had to take out as many as he could, what if the difference between sending the hive ship cratering into the ground, and having it make a crash landing was one or two thrusters? He couldn't stop now, the fate of the planet might rest in his hands.
  2623.     G-forces pinned him against his seat, too many alarms flashing on his HUD to keep track of. All he needed to know was that he was seconds away from burning up. He pushed on all the same, the hive ship was nearly through the upper atmosphere.
  2624.     To his right, he saw a ball of flame rise and break away. His first assumption was that the ship was starting to come apart, but his HUD tracked it, tagging it with Baker's callsign. It seemed that his wingman was calling it a day.
  2625.     Jaeger engaged his afterburner, if he could just get one more thruster...
  2626.     He maintained speed with the hive ship, but it was falling so fast, the ground below growing more detailed as they entered the lower atmosphere. This was his last chance, after this, he would have done all that he could. His crosshair moved over one of the few remaining thrusters, and he took the shot, the nozzle erupting into a stream of emerald fire.
  2627.     Jaeger hit his airbrakes, turning away from the doomed ship as it plummeted towards the surface of Valbara like an asteroid, and then his Beewolf shook. He looked over his shoulder as one of his airbrakes broke clean off, the view spotty and pixelated due to how many of his external cameras had melted. He lost an aileron on his right wing, then one of his tail fins began to disintegrate, the fighter falling into a flat spin as it came apart. He had pushed his luck, the ship couldn't handle what he had put it through, and now he was paying the price.
  2628.     Trying to regain control was futile, the airframe was compromised, and he was traveling too quickly to risk ejecting. If he ejected now, the force of the air on his exposed body would tear him apart, ripping off his limbs like a ragdoll. He had to wait it out. The friction was still causing flames to tear at his canopy, pieces of his fighter breaking off and slagging, his suit constricting around him in an attempt to trap blood in his brain to keep him from losing consciousness.
  2629.     He burst through the cloud layer, his lack of aerodynamics due to the damage to the airframe actually slowing him somewhat. What was left of the computer's sensors showed him his rate of descent on his HUD, most of the icons displaying error messages. Black smoke trailed behind him as more pieces were torn from his ship by the buffeting wind. He was going to be torn apart at this rate, or his fuel tank would rupture, and he would explode before he even hit the ground. He had to get out of this cockpit, but he was still going at near supersonic speeds. The longer he waited, the higher a chance he would have of surviving the initial ejection, but it also exposed him to more danger from the Beewolf breaking up.
  2630.     Jaeger blocked everything else out besides the airspeed gauge on his HUD, his gloved hand hovering over the ejection button on his panel. Twelve hundred kilometers per hour, nine hundred, eight hundred...
  2631.     An entire wing tore away from the fuselage, the Beewolf tumbling, and Jaeger hammered the button.
  2632.     The canopy was ripped away as if a disembodied hand had reached down to snatch it, then the rockets beneath his ejector seat ignited, sending him shooting clear of the wreckage. The tearing winds hit him like a fist, Jaeger bellowing in pain inside his helmet as the world spun around him. He was still too high for his chute to deploy, the only sounds that he could hear were his own labored breathing and the rushing air, his visor now dark as it had been disconnected from the Beewolf's onboard computer.
  2633.     He caught scant glimpses of the fighter as he spun, the wreckage losing more parts as it fell. The leaking fuel from the torn wing ignited, and what was left of his ship broke apart in a shower of debris, flaming scrap raining down towards the green fields far below.
  2634.     After falling for another twenty seconds or so, his chute opened, Jaeger lurching and gritting his teeth against the pain as he was jostled in his seat. Everything hurt, he couldn't gauge the damage, he couldn't even feel his extremities right now in order to test if they were still attached to him. He just tried to focus on breathing.
  2635.     As he slowly descended towards the ground, he looked down to see the wreck of the hive ship. Elation cut through his fog of pain, they had done it! It looked as if someone had upended a giant bucket full of chum and scrap metal across the plains, the main body of the vessel had carved a massive crater in the ground, and its innards were smeared across the landscape. He could make out the reinforced metal skeleton, which was still mostly intact, chunks of flesh and unidentifiable synthetic components hanging from it. Some of the massive, armored pieces of the carapace were still leaning against it from the front, while the rest had been scattered. Green flames burned where the chemical fuel had spilled, black smoke belching from some of the larger chunks. It looked as much like smoldering roadkill as it did a crash site. There was no way enough of the Bugs had survived to pose any kind of threat.
  2636.     Jaeger was coming down close to the wreck, he could see Yilgarn's pristine, white walls a few miles away. As he neared the ground, mercifully clear of any of the larger fires, his seat deployed a small yellow raft that was designed both to cushion his landing and to prevent him from sinking in water. He touched down, the impact making him wince, and he unfastened his safety harness. As he rose from his seat, he was relieved to see that he could still walk. His injuries weren't so bad as to incapacitate him. He flipped up his visor, the smell of charred flesh wafting on the air, and then he climbed down onto the grass. He had never been more happy to feel solid ground beneath his boots.
  2637.     He stooped to retrieve a bullpup XMR from its place in the housing of his ejector seat, checking the magazine and the battery. It was a survival weapon, intended to protect pilots who landed in hostile territory. It only held sixteen rounds, and there was no scope on it, but it was better than using his fists.
  2638.     There was a patch of forest not too far away, and so he began to limp towards it, appraising the mess around him. The landscape was barely recognizable, the main body of the hive ship rising up like a new mountain maybe a quarter mile away, pieces of meat and metal strewn all over the place. He navigated around a hunk of sickly looking flesh, what looked like they might be optical cables protruding from it, keeping an eye out for survivors. The Bugs were hardy, and it was entirely possible that a few might have survived the crash.
  2639.     He glimpsed a glimmer of orange, aiming his weapon at a prone Drone. It was unmoving, its carapace cracked and one of its arms missing. There were a few more bodies nearby, draped over the fragments of their vessel. The hive ship would have been packed to bursting with Bugs, full of soldiers preparing for the ground invasion.
  2640.     A short distance away he came across a different caste, its red shell shining like a ruby under the Valbaran sun. It looked like a Replete, the bulbous, transparent sack of fluid on the lower abdomen that they used to store food for the other Bugs had been ripped open.
  2641.     Movement caught his eye, and he pointed his carbine at a pile of wreckage, watching as a Drone pulled itself free. It was almost torn in half, dragging itself along with its four arms, but it raised a plasma pistol at him despite its injuries. A crack rang out as he shot it in the thorax, the alien going limp. Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a Drone at all, but a male. It still had the guards on its back that protected its gossamer wings. This must have been the Queen's hive ship, there was no other reason for winged males to be present.
  2642.     He continued on towards the safety of the trees, pushing through the pain as he limped along. He was having trouble breathing, and there was a stinging sensation in his chest, one of his lungs might have collapsed.
  2643.     As he crossed the open field, leaving the majority of the wrecked hive ship behind him, he heard a noise like rending metal. He turned, looking back, the sound was coming from some kind of fleshy pod amidst the wreckage. It was large, maybe fifteen feet around, vaguely sphere-shaped and coated in layers of carapace and metal. Some kind of internal organ, maybe?
  2644.     An arm broke through its surface, far longer than that of any Bug that he had ever seen. Its shell was an iridescent purple, catching the light as the three fingers twitched. A second arm emerged, there was a creature trapped inside the ball, and it was clawing its way out. Jaeger made for the forest as fast as his injured limbs could carry him, but it was too far away. The fleshy sphere tore open like a giant egg, and out stepped something huge.
  2645.     It had the same body plan as a Drone, the same segmented limbs and armored thorax, but it must have been twelve feet tall at least. It had massive, reinforced thighs to carry its weight, its upper pair of arms longer than a man was tall. Its neck was long and near as thick as its torso in order to support an enormous skull, like some kind of regal headdress, the ridged structure larger than the hood of a car. It was flared into a rough triangle, the creature's face at the nearest point, and the tips of the crown tapering into rounded bulbs. Extending from the forehead was a horn more ornate and elaborate than those of the Drones. It must have been at least three or four feet tall on its own, branching out like an antler from a moose or a stag. This one wasn't wearing a helmet, and it stared at him with large, expressive eyes. He saw intelligence, recognition, and fury.
  2646.     The Queen freed herself from what must have been her chamber as he scrambled for safety, the alien stumbling through the wreckage on her powerful legs as she gave chase, her insect mouthparts grinding as she chittered and hissed. She was stopped abruptly, lurching as if something was pulling at the back of her head. Jaeger saw that she was still connected to her pod by some kind of fleshy cable that trailed behind her, like a thick length of glistening intestine. She reached behind her crown with one of her long arms and tore it free, clear fluid splashing on the charred grass as the organic cable fell to the ground. Now unleashed, she continued her pursuit, clambering over what remained of her flagship as she fixed her eyes on him.
  2647.     Her invasion was thwarted, her victory had been denied, but a little personal revenge was still within her grasp.
  2648.     He realized that he wasn't going to make it to the forest before she got to him, steeling himself as he turned and shouldered his rifle, firing at her. The slugs punched through her purple carapace, leaving small holes that leaked pus-colored ichor, Jaeger squeezing the trigger until his magazine was empty. If the slugs hurt her, she didn't show it, ignoring the cluster of wounds on her torso as she barreled towards him with rage in her blue eyes.
  2649.     As she came within a hundred feet of him, a sound rang out, a low-frequency pulse that made Jaeger's blood run cold. It came again, reverberating through his bones, he could feel it vibrating up his very spine. It was like a musical sting, like whale song, and it filled him with a primal dread that surpassed even his fear of the Queen.
  2650.     She stopped in her tracks, turning her massive head as she searched for the sound's source. By the time she noticed the Teth'rak that was charging towards her, Jaeger had dropped his rifle and was already running, trying to ignore the pain in his legs as he made for cover. He looked back to see the giant animal rounding another far-off patch of forest, covering the distance alarming quickly on its three-toed feet, its coat of orange feathers raising like the hackles of an angry wolf to display the red coloration beneath. It opened its massive jaws, exposing its serrated teeth, releasing another heart-stopping call.
  2651.     The Queen turned to meet it, extending her four arms as if she meant to wrestle it to the ground, but the speeding monster rammed into her like a feathery freight train. She might be large, but her size and more importantly her weight paled in comparison to that of Valbara's apex predator.
  2652.     It used its head like a battering ram, smashing into her thorax and sending her crashing to the ground, momentum carrying it forward as it skidded to a halt. She dug furrows into the earth where she fell, screeching as she tried to ward it off with vicious strikes from her long limbs, but she couldn't free herself. One of its legs was pinning her, its weight cracking her shell and its claws leaving deep welts in the glossy material. The Teth'rak opened its powerful jaws, its pearly teeth flashing as it brought its head down and closed its mouth around her upper body, encompassing it almost entirely. Jaeger was able to hear the snapping sound even from a distance as the pressure splintered her shell as though it was no more durable than a walnut, her natural armor counting for naught as the Teth'rak crushed her like a hydraulic press.
  2653.     Her eyes widened as the realization of what was happening hit her, her long fingers clawing at its feathers, and her mandibles waving as the beast began to shake her like a dog with a chew toy. The leg that it was standing on tore off at the hip joint as it pulled, so monstrously strong that even the Betelgeusian Queen came apart like pulled pork in its maw. It was impervious to the blows that she was raining down on its head, her struggling futile. It released her for a moment as she tried to shield herself with her arms, pulling back before lunging again, getting a better grip with its foot-long teeth. It sounded almost like wood splintering as it pulverized her exoskeleton to get at the meat within, the feathers on its patterned face matted with her bodily fluids as she finally went limp.
  2654.     By the time Jaeger dove into the cover of the trees and turned to look back, the Teth'rak had already dismembered her. He watched as it tugged violently to tear off one of her segmented arms like a restaurant-goer pulling the leg off a crab, shaking the limb back and forth. It apparently found her distasteful, releasing the limb and reaching down to bite her motionless body a few more times for good measure.
  2655.     With the Queen dead, it didn't matter how many Bug ships and soldiers were left, the hive had been sterilized. They could no longer replenish their numbers, and they couldn't found a colony. Their invasion had been thwarted.
  2656.     The Teth'rak lifted its head into the air, the ornate plumes that ran down its back raising like the feathers of a peacock as it shook the ground with a triumphant pulse, standing atop the ruined body of the Queen. Jaeger slipped deeper into the forest, leaving the grisly sight behind as he vanished into the shadows.
  2657.    
  2658. ***
  2659.    
  2660.     Jaeger stumbled through the trees, trying to stay downwind of the Teth'rak. He hadn't seen head nor tail of it since the encounter at the crash site, it probably had more important things to do right now than chase tiny humans around. He was following the wall as best he could while keeping to the patches of dense forest. He knew that there were four gates, one for each cardinal direction, but he had no idea where he was relative to them. The wall was circular, so logic dictated that if he kept walking, he'd come across one eventually. He wasn't sure what he'd do next, maybe knock?
  2661.     His injuries were flaring up, and so he leaned against a nearby tree trunk, struggling to catch his breath. There was definitely something wrong with his lungs, it felt like he couldn't get a full gulp of air. One of his legs was stiff and growing less responsive the longer he walked, and his back was killing him. If he didn't find one of the gates pretty soon, he might not make it out. There was a beacon in his flight suit, but he didn't know if it was active or if it too had taken damage during his risky ejection. Help might come for him, or it might not...
  2662.     He sat down amidst the purple ferns, taking a moment to collect himself. He looked up through the alien canopy, slivers of blue just visible between the strangely-colored leaves. Even with the battle raging above, and the devastation that had rained down on the countryside, it all still looked so pristine, untouched. The lizard-birds hopped between the branches as if this was any other day, chirping and whistling as they looked down at him warily with their large eyes, flowers and palm fronds blowing in the breeze.
  2663.     His brain was still processing what had happened, it felt as if only seconds had passed since he had been in space. He and Baker had taken down a hive ship on their own, making impossible shots at impossible speeds, and in an impossible situation, sending it crashing to the ground. The Queen was dead, killed by the planet itself, almost as if Valbara had sent its own champion to punish the invader. The Rorke was still spaceworthy, and without reinforcements, the Bugs attacking Yilgarn would be routed. Baker had made it out, Maza and her flock had been safe last he had seen.
  2664.     Jaeger wanted to get up, he wanted to keep walking, but he was feeling light-headed. He clutched at his chest, leaning against the tree as he tried to stand up. There was a stab of pain in his back, and he slid back down again, his breathing growing shallower.
  2665.     Nah, he didn't feel like moving anymore. This was alright. It was okay. His job was done, everyone was safe...
  2666.     “Bullseye,” he wheezed, chuckling to himself as he pointed his finger at the sky like a gun. The hive ship...that kill had been for Boomer. It was revenge, it had made things right. He felt his heart beginning to beat more slowly, the corners of his vision darkening. It wasn't such a bad place to check out. There was a breeze, pretty flowers, the sounds of nature all around him...
  2667.     Sudden movement caught his eye, the flashing of colorful feathers. He turned his head to look, but his vision began to grow hazy. It was a Valbaran with a laser rifle, wearing green and purple camo, reaching down to lift him up. More of them emerged from the undergrowth, helping him to his feet and supporting his weight.
  2668.     “You are safe now,” one of them said, flipping up her opaque visor. “My name is Cuetz'xauh'qui, you pulled me from the jaws of the Teth'rak. Now I repay my debt. Come.”
  2669.     He stumbled along, one of the little aliens supporting him under each arm.
  2670.     “How did you find me?” he gasped.
  2671.     “Your suit beacon,” she explained. “Try not to speak, you are injured.”
  2672.     “The Queen is dead,” he said, ignoring the advice even as his lungs burned.
  2673.     “I know, we saw it from an observation tower. The attackers in space are in disarray, they have lost coordination, acting independently of one another. Some have fled deeper into the system, others are being cut down by the defense stations and the remaining allied ships. The battle for Val'ba'ra is all but over.”
  2674.     “And the city?”
  2675.     “Without support from their fleet, the forces that made it to the ground are being scattered. There are still some of them fighting in Yilgarn, but they cannot prevail. Unlike those in space, they seem unaware that their flagship has been destroyed, and so they fight on. Reports of the same are coming in from the neighboring cities.”
  2676.     “Good,” Jaeger mumbled, “good...”
  2677.     “Lieutenant Jaeger?” Cuetz asked, alarmed as he began to lose consciousness. She gestured to her flock as he slumped in their arms, his vision going dark.
  2678.  
  2679. CHAPTER 18: EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM
  2680.    
  2681.     “One collapsed lung, a fractured tibia, and compression injuries to the spinal cord,” Doctor Evans said as she circled Jaeger’s bed with a tablet computer in her hand. “All things considered, you're lucky that you didn't sustain more severe injuries, ejecting at the speed that you did.”
  2682.     “Thought we lost you there for a while, buddy,” Baker said as he leaned against a nearby bulkhead. “I saw your Beewolf go down, but I didn't see your chute pop.”
  2683.     “Am I...on the Rorke?” Jaeger asked, blinking his eyes as they adjusted to the glare. He was in a whitewashed room, small and cramped, but by human standards rather than Valbaran.
  2684.     “Yep,” his friend replied. “The Doc says you're pretty much ready to be discharged, so stop being a little bitch and come celebrate with us.”
  2685.     “That's not what I said,” Evans complained as she shot Baker a stern glance. “It may take about a week for your lung to heal completely. We drained your chest cavity, and it appears to be inflating properly now, but you still need to take some precautions. No shouting or laughing, avoid exerting yourself, and absolutely no smoking. I'm also prescribing you a cough suppressant. Your fractures weren't too severe, we've splinted your leg, and I'll be giving you anti-inflammatory medication and pain killers for your back. You should make a full recovery in a month or so, and you should be able to leave the infirmary later today.”
  2686.     “What happened?” Jaeger asked groggily, “how long have I been out?”
  2687.     “Chill out, you haven't been in a coma,” Baker laughed. “Couple of hours at the most. You missed a hell of a fight in orbit. Once we brought the hive ship down, the rest of their fleet went berserk, it was like they lost all ability to coordinate. It was like shooting giant, ugly fish in a barrel.”
  2688.     “So the hive fleet is..?”
  2689.     “Wiped out to the last fighter. There are still some Bugs down on the surface, barricaded in the cities, but it's nothin' that a few Borealan shock troopers can't sort out. Valbara should be Bug-free by the end of the day. They're callin' you a hero, you know.”
  2690.     “A hero?” Jaeger asked, surprised. “Me? Why?”
  2691.     “Well, besides bringin' down the hive ship, which I played equal part in might I remind you,” he added sarcastically. “The surveillance video of you facin' off against the Queen after the crash has gone viral, so to speak. It was all over the Valbaran broadcast network, and now it's found its way onto the Rorke's intranet.”
  2692.     Baker pulled out his phone and tapped on it for a few moments, then turned the screen towards Jaeger. He leaned forward, wincing as a stab of pain shot up his spine, watching as the video began to play. It was just like the footage that they had seen in the lookout post when Maza's flock had first taken them up onto the wall, taken from a distance, the telescope zoomed in on the scene. He saw himself, a small speck at the bottom of the shot as the Queen advanced on him, he was firing his XMR at her. There was no sound, but the screeching noise that she had made was still fresh in his mind. From off-camera came the Teth'rek, barreling into her and knocking her to the ground. He remembered that part well enough, turning his attention back to Baker as it began to tear her apart.
  2693.     “Now that's somethin' you don't see every day,” Baker laughed as he pulled back his phone and watched the scene play out gleefully. “The locals are pretty pleased with you, to say the least. If you want my opinion, they're probably going to start putting your face on T-shirts and coffee mugs, so be prepared for that. Oh, by the way, the Captain should be visitin' soon to give you one of these,” he said as he tapped at a medal on his chest.
  2694.     “Is that...”
  2695.     “A Navy Cross, yeah. For 'extraordinary heroism in combat', so I'm told.”
  2696.     Jaeger had to suppress a laugh, he had rarely seen Baker so pleased with himself.
  2697.     “How many did we lose?” he asked, his tone becoming more serious. “What are our casualties?”
  2698.     “Less, thanks to you,” Baker replied. “Don't think about that right now, just focus on getting back on your feet.”
  2699.     “What about Maza and the others? Did they make it out in one piece?” he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
  2700.     “You can ask them yourself, they docked a few minutes ago and they should be on their way up here.”
  2701.     Jaeger breathed a sigh of relief as he lay back in his bed. On top of the war being over, everyone that he was close to was safe. He couldn't have hoped for a better outcome. Well, perhaps an outcome where he didn't collapse his lung, but you couldn't have everything. As if on cue, the door opened, and several camouflaged blurs flooded into the room. Maza's arms were around him before he even had a chance to sit up, her face buried in his chest. It seemed that they had left their helmets on the lander.
  2702.     “You're alive!” she warbled, her feathers flashing in excited yellow. “There was so much chaos during the battle, nobody was able to tell us if you had survived or not, even Baker hadn't seen your chute open. We saw the hive ship go down, we saw your Beewolf explode, none of us knew what to think. It was only when we saw the video of the Queen being killed by the Teth'rak that we knew you had ejected safely, and then Cuetz'xauh'qui sent us a message telling us that you had been handed over to the Earth'nay in Yilgarn.”
  2703.     “Relatively safely,” he chuckled, wincing as her tight grip on him hurt his back.
  2704.     She pulled away, looking apologetic.
  2705.     “I knew that you would prevail,” Coza announced confidently.
  2706.     “You cried,” Ayau teased, Coza's feathers flashing in embarrassed purple.
  2707.     “We waited twenty rotations for this day,” Xico mused. “And when it finally came, the war was over in a matter of hours. If it was not for the Earth'nay, the Bugs would have broken through our defenses and attacked the cities directly, the assessment that Campbell made was accurate. If it had not been for your actions, Jaeger, Baker, then that hive ship would have turned the tide of the battle in their favor.”
  2708.     “Think nothing of it,” Baker replied, polishing his medal conspicuously with his sleeve. “It was just a little extraordinary heroism is all.”
  2709.     “You were very brave,” Tacka said quietly, it was one of the rare times that Jaeger had ever heard her speak. Somehow, it made her compliment feel all the more sincere. He didn't feel like a hero, however. He just felt tired, relieved. Before they could continue their reunion, Baker got a message on his phone, thumbing through it for a moment as Jaeger looked on.
  2710.     “They want us in the briefing room,” he said, “the Valbarans too.”
  2711.     Evans rolled her eyes, clearly annoyed by the Captain's meddling in medical matters.
  2712.     “Very well,” she conceded, “you can go. Just remember what I said, no laughing or coughing. Here, take these,” she added as she retrieved a baggy full of medication from a nearby table and thrust it into his hands. “No, I don't mean take them with you, I mean take them now.” She handed him a glass of water and watched as he downed a handful of pills. “And come straight back here when you're done, I want you under observation for a few more hours at least.”   
  2713.  
  2714. ***
  2715.    
  2716.     “The damage to the Rorke could have been a lot worse,” Campbell said as he paced before a hologram of the vessel, the flickering display lighting up the briefing room in a ghostly glow. “The hive ship's plasma cannons melted through all of the armor layers and several decks here...here...and most notably here. That's not including all of the damage from the Bug torpedoes. One of our frigates is in need of some serious repairs, the same goes for several CWIS ships and many of our support craft. Losses were below my projections, thankfully, but the fleet isn't in any position to continue along our patrol route. Nor can we head back to UNN territory.”
  2717.     Captain Fielding examined the three-dimensional model, the rest of his staff looking on. Baker was stood nearby, and one of the attendants had relinquished his chair to Jaeger.
  2718.     “And what about the Valbaran situation?” he asked, directing his question towards the flock.
  2719.     “Better than we ever imagined, Captain,” Xico replied. “Civilian casualties were almost nonexistent, the underground shelters did their job admirably. We lost one defense station, along with all hands aboard, and there was significant damage to three more. Two of our carriers are dead in space, with four more taking enough structural damage to warrant urgent repairs. If you can provide any assistance on that front, we would be grateful. We lost a few fighters, and there were some casualties during the ground battles, but overall, we came out relatively unscathed.”
  2720.     “You must understand, Captain,” Maza added. “We had been preparing for an apocalypse. The fact that our cities are not razed, and that our entire fleet isn't burning in orbit is a miracle from our perspective.”
  2721.     “We lost a lot of good men on that station too,” Fielding replied solemnly, “they were fighting on the hull when it was brought down.” He turned back to Campbell, his hands clasped behind his back. “As the chief engineer, what is your recommendation, Mister Campbell?”
  2722.     “We're in no state to make any long journeys,” he replied with a scowl as he leaned on the table and stared at the rotating display. “It will take weeks of repairs to get the fleet back into ship shape, and in the meantime, the Valbarans will be dealing with reduced defensive capabilities. We need repairs and resupply, they need help with relief efforts and something to plug the holes in their defense grid. I would recommend that we stay in Valbaran orbit for the time being. The Baskeyfield could make the trip back to UNN space on her own and make a report, maybe bring back reinforcements.”
  2723.     “That would be a round trip of almost a year,” Fielding said.
  2724.     “I don't see that we have a choice, Captain. Valbara is the only safe harbor that we have right now. Worst case scenario, we can use that time to continue updating Valbaran technology and manufacturing techniques, get their ships and defense stations outfitted with railguns like we had initially planned. By the time we have to head back, even if UNN reinforcements aren't available, we'll be able to leave them in a much stronger position than we found them.”
  2725.     “Agreed,” Fielding replied. “Lord knows that after that fight, our personnel could use some shore leave too. I doubt the Valbarans will have any objections.”
  2726.     “Of course not, Captain,” Maza replied. “Your people are welcome on Valbara. We owe you a great debt.”
  2727.     “You don't owe us anything,” Fielding said. “We were just doing our job, and you happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
  2728.     “The Val'ba'ra'nay will not see it that way,” Ayau chuckled.
  2729.     “Lieutenants Baker, Jaeger, I'm assuming that you learned enough about the local culture during your time on the planet to advise our personnel on etiquette and proper behavior?”
  2730.     “Yes, Sir,” Baker replied.
  2731.      “Excellent, then we have a game plan. Mister Campbell, I want you to oversee repairs to the fleet, prioritize the Rorke. Once that's done, you have my permission to return to the surface and do what you can to help the Valbarans. Repairs, upgrades, whatever they need. Let's start cycling troops down to the planet for some R&R. Prioritize the walking wounded, some fresh air will do wonders for their recovery. Transport the more severely injured as soon as Doctor Evans clears them for travel. I need the people down at requisitions to start writing lists of the supplies that we'll need. I'll contact the Captain of the Baskeyfield and help him plot his course, we'll need to make sure that they have enough food and fuel to make it back home. Dismissed.”
  2732.     There was a chorus of 'Yes Sir's' from around the table as the various heads of their departments got up and began to file out of the room.
  2733.     “Lieutenant Jaeger,” Fielding said, gesturing for him to come over. He got up out of his seat and stood to attention as best he could, the pain pills that Evans had given him hadn't quite kicked in yet.
  2734.     “At ease,” Fielding added with a wave of his hand. “Lieutenant Baker tells me that the stunt with the hive ship was your idea, is that correct?”
  2735.     Jaeger looked back at Baker who was grinning widely.
  2736.     “Yes, Sir,” he replied stiffly.
  2737.     “How did you come up with that so quickly?”
  2738.     “I just...had to, I suppose. It was the only course of action that made sense to me at the time.”
  2739.     “Some people buckle under stress,” Fielding continued. “When put in a dire situation, their mind slows to a crawl, and they can't do much more than react to what's happening around them. It takes nerve to think with a clear head in that kind of situation, nerve befitting a Captain.”
  2740.     “Sir?” Jaeger asked.
  2741.     “I'll be keeping an eye on you in the future, Lieutenant. If you wanted to graduate from flying fighters to commanding something a few thousand tons heavier, I'd be happy to write you a letter of recommendation.”
  2742.     “Duly noted Sir, thank you,” Jaeger replied. “I'll need some time to think about it, of course.”
  2743.     “Of course. Oh, and before I forget...” Fielding reached into his pocket and withdrew a small, black container. He opened the lid, and sitting on a cushion of velvet was a medal, the same Navy Cross that Baker was sporting so proudly on his breast. “There's usually a ceremony, but we're a little understaffed right now. The Navy doesn't give these out lightly, and I've personally only ever awarded three of them. Two of those were today. If we didn't have footage of a pair of Beewolfs taking out a hive ship during reentry, I think we'd have a hard time convincing anybody that it had happened at all.”
  2744.     Fielding handed the container to Jaeger, who didn't really know what to say. Everyone was heaping praise on him, but he didn't feel as if he had done anything too out of the ordinary. As Fielding had told the Valbarans, he had only been doing his job.
  2745.     “Thank you, Sir.”
  2746.     “If you'll excuse me, I have to see a man about a torpedo frigate,” the Captain said as he made for the door and left Jaeger standing there with his medal.
  2747.     “Well, don't look too excited,” Baker joked. “By the way, you're walkin' wounded. I don't think anyone would bat an eye if you took the next boat down to the surface.”
  2748.     “Will it really be a whole year before your fleet can leave Val'ba'ra?” Maza asked, sidling up beside him and peering up at him expectantly as her companions looked on.
  2749.     “It's looking that way, yeah.”
  2750.     The flock grinned at one another, flashing their feathers excitedly.
  2751.     “We aren't engineers or scientists,” Baker added, “there won't be a lot for us to do in the coming months besides waste time and soak up the sun. Bug attacks don't come in waves, it will be years before another fleet comes this way, if it happens at all. By that time, you might have a whole Coalition task force standing by rather than one patrol fleet.”
  2752.     “The Ensi has requested your presence as soon as you return to Yilgarn,” Coza said, “she and her flock wish to meet with the two Earth'nay who crippled the Betelgeusian flagship. You especially, Jaeger. All of Val'ba'ra knows your face now, the lone Earth'nay who stood against the Queen.”
  2753.     “Maybe they want to give us more medals,” Baker said with a grin.
  2754.     An entire year stranded on Valbara with Maza and her flock? Hell, that was worth a collapsed lung and then some.
  2755.     “The first thing we need to do is go find Scratcher,” Jaeger said, “he's been missing out on all the fun. He must have been going stir crazy all this time with his busted arm.”
  2756.     “You know, you can't really keep callin' him Scratcher after what you've been up to lately,” Baker said as he gestured to the Valbarans. “You've also proven that you can actually hit a target, so maybe we need to come up with a new callsign for you.”
  2757.     As they made their way down the cramped hallway, Maza took his hand, and once again he noted that it was small enough that he could enclose it entirely in his fist. He felt Coza take the other. She was obviously overjoyed to see him again, but she was still putting on a stoic front, as if nobody would be able to tell. Ayau climbed up onto his back and crossed her arms around his neck, brushing her cheek against his as Xico and Tacka crowded him from behind. It was a good job that the fluffy alien was so light and that the painkillers were finally doing their job.
  2758.     “I always thought that this would be a day of mourning,” Maza said. “But while we did lose some good people, all I feel is relieved that it's over, I feel hopeful. My flock, my male, my friends...they're all alive. You've been at war before Jaeger, is that selfish of me?”
  2759.     “It's not selfish,” he replied, “you're just glad to be alive. I don't think the dead would want you to be miserable on their behalf.”
  2760.     “I suppose not,” she admitted. “In our distant past, back when we lived in tribes, the Val'ba'ra'nay were animists. We believed that when a person died, their soul, their essence migrated into the body of an animal. We know better now, of course, but there was comfort in the idea that a bird passing overhead might be a lost loved one watching over you. That amongst a flock of Gue'tra, there might be old friends or curious family members. When the Teth'rak attacked the Betelgeusian Queen...I know it's just superstition, but I still felt as if it was protecting us. Protecting Yilgarn, protecting you.”
  2761.     “It was simply defending its territory against what it perceived to be another large animal,” Xico said.
  2762.     “I know,” Maza replied. “But if we still practiced animism, I might argue that the souls of the fallen had some part in it.”
  2763.     “It is a comforting thought,” Coza mused, “revenge from beyond the grave.”
  2764.     “I'd fly over its territory and drop a nice big juicy steak for it,” Baker said, “but it also tried to eat me. I'd say we're even.”
  2765.     “In any case, we can now enjoy your company for a whole extra year,” Maza said gleefully. “That's close to a full Val'ba'ra rotation, I think. We have so much more to show you, you didn't even travel to any other cities in the few days you spent on the surface. There's so much more to see, so many more things to do. I doubt that we could cover everything even if we had ten rotations.”
  2766.     “The first thing I want to do is relax in your lake and take a load off,” Jaeger said. “And you guys had better go easy on me for a few weeks until I'm all healed up, especially you, Tacka. I'll get a note from my doctor if I have to.”
  2767.     The little alien gave him a wry smile, Maza and Ayau snickering. Baker wasn't in on the joke, but the implication was obvious enough.
  2768.     “Don't worry,” Ayau purred, “we'll take good care of you. You're a war hero, after all, you've earned a little pampering.”
  2769.     “I never thought I'd say this,” he added, “but I think I'm going to enjoy being grounded for a little while.”
  2770.  
  2771. -THE END-
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