CHAPTER 4: REPEAT AFTER ME
“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.”
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.
“Why is that so unusual?” Jaeger asked.
“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.”
“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?”
“Shoes,” it replied.
“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.”
“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.
“We need to build up to that,” Evans said, “we don’t want to confuse them by bombarding them with information too quickly.”
“Why not just show them a map of the system and get them to point to their base?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“Tablet,” the alien chirped.
“What is this?” Evans repeated, pointing to the fighter that was resting on the deck beside them.
“Beewolf,” the alien said in its strange, high pitched voice.
“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…”
“And what do we know about their language?”
“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.”
“So that’s why they sound like parrots?”
“Possibly, yes. As for the color displays…I can’t guess. It must have more basis in culture than biology.”
“They remind me of a cuttlefish,” Jaeger mused. “You know, those squid-like creatures that have flashing colors along their bodies?”
“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…”
“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.”
“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.
“Tentacles on the back of its head?” Evans wondered, clearly as surprised as Jaeger was. “For what purpose?”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“They were using them on their fighters too,” Jaeger added, “maybe they have a tactical purpose?”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“Doctor Evans, Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said as the pilot snapped to attention. “At ease. Have you made any progress with the aliens?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Sir, if I may?” Jaeger began. “Is there any word on the missing pilots yet?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“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.”
“Oh yes,” Evans chimed in, “their level of technology could reveal aspects of their cultural development.”
Fielding nodded to Campbell, and the engineer produced a tablet computer, beginning to read from it.
“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.”
“Is that different from what we use?” Evans asked.
“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.”
“And these aliens can’t do that?” she asked.
“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.”
“Move it along, Campbell,” Fielding sighed. “We all have places to be.”
“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.”
“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?”
Campbell shrugged dismissively.
“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?”
“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.”
“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‘.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“That’s a human city, where most of us live.”
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.
“Earth,” he said. “Earth.”
“Earth,” it trilled.
“This is where we come from,” he said as he pointed to himself. “My home.”
“My home,” it repeated, the spinning planet reflecting in its eyes. “Check this out.”
“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?”
The alien trilled, reacting to the image. It pointed at empty space, then gave him a beep. “Earth, my home,” it said.
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.
“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?
“That’s empty space,” he said, “there’s nothing there.”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions,” the creature snapped, mimicking Evans’ voice.
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.
“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…”
It had drawn a third ring around the star, a planet orbiting between the two gas giants.
“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.”
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.
“Chief Engineer Campbell? I have something that you’ll want to see.”
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.
Campbell was milling about near the door, and he shined a flashlight in Jaeger’s face as he turned around.
“Ah, Lieutenant, is there something you need?”
“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.
“The alien seems to know what it’s saying,” he replied with a shrug, “I believe it.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Well,” she began hesitantly, “studies have shown that immersion is the most effective way to learn a new language.”
“What does that mean?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“You disagree, Lieutenant?” Fielding asked, prompting him to speak freely.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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?
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“I’m showing them around,” Jaeger clarified, “feel free to talk to them. They’re supposed to be learning English.”
“Hello there,” the man said, still breathing heavily from his workout.
“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.
“So they’re like parrots? They repeat what people say?”
“Amongst other things,” Jaeger replied, “watch this.”
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.
More of the gymgoers began to abandon their weights and machines, crowding around the visitors, fascinated by the odd singing and their strange appearance.
“Where do they come from?” one woman who was wearing a sports bra asked, her hair tied back in a tight ponytail.
“This system, we believe,” Jaeger replied. “But we don’t have confirmation yet.”
“What are they called?” another man asked.
“No idea, we’re still trying to teach them to speak.”
“Can they copy ‘any‘ sound?”
“So far, yeah.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
She sat up, rolling her massive shoulders and watching the alien out of the corner of her eye.
“What is ‘that‘?” she asked disdainfully, pointing to it with a clawed finger.
“Don’t know yet,” Jaeger replied with a shrug.
“What’s it doing here?”
“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…”
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?
It drew its arm back and beeped at her cheerfully, the Borealan’s round ears twitching.
“Impudent little thing,” she huffed. “Brave for one so small.”
“They were out there fighting the Bugs with us in the asteroid field,” Jaeger explained, “I’ve never seen formation flying like that before.”
“You kill Bugs, little one?” the Borealan asked. “Then you and I have something in common.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.