CHAPTER 10: HOME SWEET HOME
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.
“I thought we were going to the city?” he asked, turning to Maza who was sat beside him.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I feel like I’m on a golf course at a country club,” Baker whispered, Jaeger chuckling at the visual.
“Shall we get some scooters?” Jaeger asked, but Maza shook her head.
“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.”
“A little precarious maybe,” he admitted. “Not all of us have stabilizing tails, you know.”
“You just suck at driving,” Baker added.
“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.
“Aren’t they coming with us?” Jaeger asked.
“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.”
“I really don’t mind that much,” he protested, “if you want to-”
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.
“Nonsense, come. You are my guest.”
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.
“Uh…alright then,” he conceded.
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.
“How does it compare to Earth?” she asked, glancing up at him. She seemed chipper, happy to have some time alone with him perhaps.
“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.”
“Palm fronds?” she asked.
“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?”
“Oh?” she responded curiously, “what color are the plants on earth?”
“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.”
“Maybe. Of course, from my perspective, some plants have always been that color.”
“It’s nice,” he added, “refreshing.”
“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?”
“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.”
“So Earth’nay like their women to be smaller than them?”
“Some do, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “Scratcher certainly doesn’t…”
“And how about you?”
“I guess I’ve never really thought about it.”
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.
“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.
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?
“You should let your hair grow out,” she said, “it would look good.”
“I…don’t think UNN regulations allow that,” he replied stiffly, averting his eyes from her intense stare again.
“Come,” she said, changing the subject and tugging him along the path. “I’ll show you the lake by our house.”
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?
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“This is where we live,” Maza announced, “what do you think?”
“Why the dome shape?” he asked.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
Jaeger hastily brushed the plant away, then he narrowed his eyes at Baker’s snack.
“Oh for- did you use the scanner on that?”
“No,” he mumbled through a mouthful of whatever it was.
“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.”
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.
“You’re in luck, there’s nothing we can’t digest in it,” he said as he passed it back to his friend.
“Oh, that’s a relief,” Baker replied as he took another large bite, talking as he chewed. “What’s it made from?”
“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.”
He considered for a moment, then swallowed, shrugging his shoulders.
“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.”
“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.”
“Do humans not eat insects?” Maza asked.
“Not commonly,” Jaeger replied. “It’s been proposed as a meat substitute in a lot of places, but it never catches on.”
“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.”
“Hydroponics?” Jaeger asked, “I wondered why I couldn’t see any farmland from the air.”
“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.”
“Yeah, like not ending up on someone else’s plate…”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“No blankets?” he asked, “don’t you get cold?”
“Why would we be cold? We would just increase the temperature.”
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.
“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.”
“You guys really do everything together, huh? I have a question though, where’s the bathroom?”
“The bathroom?” she asked, cocking her head at him.
“Yeah, you know what a bathroom is. You’ve seen them on the Rorke.”
“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.”
“We do, yes. Where else would you put a bathroom?”
“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.”
“So you have outhouses? Weird. Where do you bathe?”
“Usually in the lakes.”
“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.”
“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.”
“But what if a stranger should wander onto your property?”
“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?
“But your flock can see you?”
“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.”
“And if you were to bathe in front of someone who wasn’t a part of your flock?”
“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.”
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.
“So when you followed me into the shower room on the Rorke…” he began.
“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.”
“Still, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.
“Oh, you didn’t offend me,” she replied with a flash of pink.
Baker poked his head into the bedroom, interrupting them.
“So are we going to the city or what?” he asked.
“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.”
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.
“So if they all sleep in the same room, and they all bathe together, what are me and you supposed to do?” Baker continued.
“We’ll deal with that hurdle when we come to it. Come on, let’s get our gear unpacked.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.