Birds of Prey: Chapter 11

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Baker caught him staring at the aliens, and leaned over to nudge him.

“Wish we could wear shorts too,” he said, “I’m sweatin’ my ass off in this uniform.”

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.

“What is…is that fur?”

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.

Baker leaned in too, the alien cocking her head at them as the two humans inspected her.

“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.

“No!” Jaeger replied, fascinated. “Do all of you have fur under your clothes?”

“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.”

“How is a proto-feather different from a feather?” Jaeger asked.

“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.”

“Can I touch it?” Baker asked, Jaeger elbowing him and shaking his head.

“You can touch it,” Ayau said, “but only if you let me touch your fur.”

“My fur?” Baker asked, confused. She pointed to his head, and he laughed. “Alright.”

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.

“It’s like mouse fur!” Ayau exclaimed.

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.

“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?”

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.

“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.”

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.

“So is Ayau a different race than the rest of you?” Jaeger asked.

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“But now you all live at the equator?” Jaeger asked.

“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.”

“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.”

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.

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.

“Clean,” Baker muttered, “sure makes Earth look like a shithole.”

“Come on man,” Jaeger whispered, “we’re representing humanity here. Try not to curse like a sailor.”

“I ‘am‘ a sailor.”

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…

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.

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.

“You are Earth’nay!” one of the strangers said, “you come to help us?”

“Are the Bugs coming for us?” another chimed, a worried murmur spreading through the crowd.

“Is it true that you bring us weapons and ships?”

“Where have you come from?”

“They speak English too?” Baker muttered, “fuckin’ language is spreadin’ like a virus. How are they learnin’ it so fast?”

“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.

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.

“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.”

Maza gave him a reassuring nod, and so he continued, the crowd was captivated.

“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.”

“Are they coming?” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Will it be like Ker’gue’la?”

“Can the Earth’nay ships stop them?”

Jaeger waved his hands, trying to calm them.

“Rest assured, we are taking every measure to fortify your planetary defenses, and we’re working closely with your military to coordinate our forces.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“Relax, it’s just a male,” Coza whispered to him. “A cute one at that…”

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.

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.

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.

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.

“This way, please.”

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.

“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.”

“There were a few,” she replied. “But males are less numerous than females, and they tend to do work that keeps them inside.”

“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.

“Based on the population of your carrier, I’m going to assume that there are as many male Earth’nay born as females, correct?”

“Just about, yeah. I think it’s slightly skewed in favor of women, but not by a lot.”

“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.”

“And that’s normal for your kind?” Jaeger asked skeptically.

“It’s perfectly natural.”

“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?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, cocking her head as she looked up at him.

“If there’s only one male for every eight females, how do the other seven find mates and reproduce?”

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.

“Earth’nay each have one mate? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Is…that not the case for you?”

“How decadent,” she muttered with a flutter of pink plumes. “Imagine having enough males to fill a bedchamber…”

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.

“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.”

“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.”

“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…”

“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.”

“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.

“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?”

“They wouldn’t bring their male to work with them,” Maza laughed, “imagine how that would go!”

“A male can’t be a soldier or a laborer, there are no male pilots or male Ensi,” Coza added with a chuckle.

“Why not?” Jaeger asked.

“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.”

“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.”

“So they’re like…house husbands? But what about this guy here, and the secretary downstairs? Aren’t they working?”

“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.”

“They would be too weak to qualify for military service regardless,” Coza said, “they wouldn’t meet the physical requirements.”

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.

“What about these ones?” he asked, gesturing to the male that was leading them along the corridor. “Are their flocks working somewhere else?”

“They’re probably not joined to a flock yet,” Maza replied.

“So they live on their own?”

“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.”

“So how do Valbarans court?” Jaeger asked, “do they date like humans?”

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.

“Perhaps we can show you. After the appointment, of course. I think you’ll find it very interesting.”

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.

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.

“Uh, Maza?” Jaeger asked as one of the women took his hand and began to count his fingers.

“My apologies,” Maza said, “they’re excited. It’s the first time that they’ve seen an alien up close.”

One of the doctors stepped back, her yellow headdress collapsing into its sheaths as she composed herself.

“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!”

“My name is Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said, trying to get her attention. “And this is Baker,” he added, his friend waving at her.

“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…”

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.

“Maybe we should slow things down a little,” Maza suggested, “I think you’re frightening them.”

The doctor called her two companions away, but they kept their unblinking eyes fixed on the two humans eagerly.

“My name is Doctor Matla’xau’tack, my flock and I are the head physicians at this facility.”

“Just the three of you?” Baker asked.

“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?”

“Hold on,” Jaeger said, raising his hands. “What examinations, exactly?”

“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?”

“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.”

“Good, good. You are male, correct?”

“Last time I checked,” Baker replied.

“Yes, we’re male,” Jaeger clarified as he gave his friend a ‘stop fucking around‘ look.

“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.”


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.

“Here we can see the most obvious differences,” the doctor began, “in the skeletal structure and the respiratory system.”

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.

“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.”

She turned her pointer towards the human skeleton now, the red dot sliding down the spine.

“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.

The view zoomed in on the muscles, cross-sections expanding to fill the monitor.

“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.”

She moved her laser to the Valbaran X-ray, pointing at the muscle fibers.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

“From memory?” Jaeger asked, perplexed.

“Yes, from memory.”

“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.”

“Can you tell me how many individual shapes the sequence was comprised of?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not with any certainty.”

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.

“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.”

“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.”

“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?”

“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.

“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.”

“How do you mean?” she asked, flashing her feathers in confusion.

“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.”

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?

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.

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.

“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?”

“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.”

“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?”

“Our language is a lot faster than yours,” Maza said, “we can convey information much more quickly.”

“The speech center of the brain is also more developed,” one of the doctors added, “which means that more information can be processed.”

“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?”

“I can do you one better,” Baker said, waving his phone at Jaeger. “Recorded the whole presentation.”

“That’s…surprisingly clever of you, Baker.”

“If I learned one thing at Texas A&M, it was how to take notes durin’ a lecture without havin’ to do any writing.”

“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.”

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.

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.

“You wanted to see Val’ba’ra’nay courtship? Watch this…”

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.

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.

Artwork by Dredjir:

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.

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.

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.

“We’re gonna make a fortune exportin’ glow sticks and rave music,” Baker whispered.

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.

“What the hell was that?” Jaeger asked, Maza laughing at his question.

“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.”

“And the thing with the phones?”

“He gave her his communicator address so that they can stay in contact.”

“She got his number,” Baker clarified, clearly amused by the whole affair.

“That was certainly…elaborate,” Jaeger said, “does all Valbaran courtship go that way?”

“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?”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Maza shrugged her feathers.

“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.”

“So what makes him cute?” Jaeger asked, “what qualities do you look for in a male?”

“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.”

“So…do we look masculine to you?” Baker asked. “Humans have, like…no snout at all.”

“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.

“Did you teach her that word?”

“Don’t look at me,” he replied with a shrug.

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