CHAPTER 12: VANGUARD
They arrived back at the flock’s domed dwelling, the two humans ducking under the low doorway as they stepped through into the carpeted living area. The planet’s star was getting low in the sky, its pale glow dimming as it dipped below the horizon.
“So where are me and Baker sleeping?” Jaeger asked, eyeing the bedroom warily. He didn’t know how he felt about sharing it with the whole flock, but they didn’t exactly have a fold-out couch, where else were they going to sleep?
“Is there a reason you can’t sleep with us?” Maza asked, “cultural maybe? We just assumed that it would be alright.”
“No, nothing like that,” Jaeger replied. “There’s an attitude in human culture that if a male and a female share a bed, it implies that they…it’s silly anyway, we can sleep together.”
“As long as y’all don’t sleep in a pile like Borealans,” Baker added, “give us enough space and it’ll be peachy.”
“I see,” Maza said. “That will work. We’ll take one side of the room, and leave the other for the Earth’nay. There’s plenty of space to go around, and we’ll all wear night clothing to preserve our modesty.”
“Pajamas?” Jaeger suggested.
“Is that the correct term? Pajamas, then. We should eat first, however. Can we offer you anything?”
“Want more bug bars, Baker?” Jaeger asked. He laughed as his friend stuck out his tongue and pulled a disgusted face.
“No thanks, I’m good. We brought MREs.”
“We’ll just need some water,” Jaeger added.
“We will prepare food for ourselves then,” Maza said, directing her flock to the kitchen. “In Val’ba’ra’nay culture, it is customary for everyone to eat meals around the same table, it would be nice if you joined us.”
“Sure,” Jaeger said, “we have similar customs.”
“My family used to eat TV dinners on the couch,” Baker said with a sigh, “even at Thanksgiving.”
“Alright Baker, keep your unresolved family issues to yourself and let’s get some grub.”
They had set their laden rucksacks on the round table earlier in the day, and they rummaged inside for their MREs, withdrawing the Navy-blue colored packets. They leaned the rucksacks against the nearest wall to get them out of the way, the two humans perching on the small chairs and leaning down to reach the surface as they opened the packets.
Tacka returned with a jug of water, placing it on the table before scurrying away to the safety of the domed kitchen. She was still so timid around them.
“What did you get?” Baker asked, spreading the various packaged food items out and examining them.
“I got…ravioli in tomato sauce, chicken pate and crackers, and…oh sweet, I got some pop tarts. How about you?” Jaeger opened one of the transparent ziplock bags and fished for his plastic cutlery, setting them down on the table along with some napkins and the salt and pepper sachets.
“I got beans and pork, blackcurrant jam with some biscuits, and a chocolate chip muffin. Fuck, they gave me a raspberry flavored drink, what’s yours?”
“Yeah, alright,” Jaeger said as he passed Baker the packet of flavored powder. There was also instant coffee, some gum and chewy candies, and a dried fruit bar. Pretty standard affair for MREs. It wasn’t exactly gourmet food, but there was no spice like hunger.
They placed the main courses inside the flameless heaters that they came with, then added water, steam quickly shooting from the packets as they did their work. They poured water into the packets of flavored powder, placing a straw inside them like giant juice boxes, the pair starting on the biscuits and crackers as they waited for their meals to cook. They had purification tablets, but if the Valbarans could drink the water, then they probably could too.
Within about fifteen minutes, the Valbarans returned from the kitchen, each of them carrying a large ceramic dish. They set them down towards the center of the table, pulling up chairs as they took seats around it. The dishes were varied, there was some kind of meat in a brown-colored sauce, an assorted bowl of grains and what might be root vegetables of some kind, along with other pastes and food items that Jaeger couldn’t begin to identify.
They were just in time for the flameless ration heaters to have finished their work, and so the group ate together, the aliens eating directly from the communal bowls with implements that resembled two-pronged forks and ladle-like spoons. They passed the dishes between them, so organized and in tune with one another’s needs that they scarcely had to ask. Every aspect of their life was shared, they even ate from the same plates. Jaeger tried to imagine a similar scenario occurring in his childhood home, his siblings sharing the meal equally between themselves with no fighting or complaining, which seemed like an impossibility.
“What do you have?” Maza asked, craning her flexible neck to get a look at their dishes.
“This is ravioli in a vegetable sauce,” Jaeger explained, showing her his open container as steam rose from the plastic bag. “It comes from Italy, a region of Earth. It’s beef, meat from Earth livestock, sandwiched between two pieces of dough which are made from grain.”
“What’s that white powder that you put on it?” Xico asked.
“Salt, a seasoning that enhances the flavor. I’d offer you a taste, but I’m not sure if Valbarans can digest all of the components.”
“Yeah, it’s probably safer not to share it,” Baker added.
“You can probably eat this though,” Jaeger said as he brandished the small, plastic bag of gummy candies. “It’s mostly just animal gelatin and sugar. You guys have sugar, right? I remember seeing it in the analysis of the insect bar that you gave to Baker.”
“Yes, that should be edible for us,” Maza replied as she eyed the brightly colored sweets.
He broke open the packet and placed a gummy candy in front of each Valbaran.
“They’re chewy,” he explained as they examined them, Ayau sniffing the alien treat while Xico licked it experimentally. Baker laughed as they popped them into their mouths and began to chew on them. It was like giving a dog peanut butter, the aliens smacking and licking as the candies stuck to the roof of their mouth and between their teeth.
To his surprise, Tacka especially seemed to like the taste, eyeing the rest of the packet from across the table. Jaeger wanted to see if she would overcome her apparent wariness of him for another snack, holding the ziplock bag just out of reach of her little arms, accounting for the extra reach that her feather sheaths afforded her. He gestured for her to come to him, watching as the alien slowly slid off her chair and bobbed around the side of the table. Coza nudged Ayau, who was sitting beside her, the two smirking as Tacka inched closer to the human.
It was like feeding a wild raccoon, Jaeger holding out the packet so that she had to reach out to take it from him, the alien snatching it and scurrying back to her seat with her prize clutched protectively against her chest. She shared the spoils with her sisters, but they let her eat the majority of the gummy candies herself. It was the happiest and most relaxed that Jaeger had seen her so far, and he started on his pop tarts as he watched her chew intently.
There wasn’t a lot of room for conversation, the aliens seemed fixated on their meal. When they were finished, they cleared the table quickly. Jaeger asked if there was anywhere that he and Baker could dispose of their empty food packets, and Maza showed them into the kitchen where there was what looked like a tall, cylindrical garbage can. She opened the transparent lid and dropped the empty wrappers inside, Jaeger leaning over to see that the cylinder was full of what looked like rotary blades, almost like a jet engine. She closed the lid, hit a switch, and then the blades inside churned the garbage into fine dust like a giant blender. It then vacuumed the leavings away, apparently into the floor.
“It’s some kind of giant garbage disposal chute,” Baker marveled, looking at Jaeger with an excited expression on his face. “Let’s find more stuff to put in it!”
Jaeger was about to warn Baker that it wasn’t a toy and that he was an adult, but Maza passed him some kind of discarded plastic container, which he gleefully dropped into the chute. He hit the switch, watching as the spinning blades pulverized it, stopping just short of clapping his hands as the powder vanished down the chute.
“Where does it go?” Jaeger asked.
“To the waste processing plant,” Maza replied. “We dispose of all of our refuse this way, both organic and synthetic.”
No doubt the Valbarans used some kind of advanced recycling process in keeping with their staunch environmentalism.
“Are you ready to sleep?” Maza asked, Jaeger nodding in reply. “Good, we will change into our ‘pajamas‘, please do the same.”
The flock moved off to the bedroom, closing the door behind them to protect their privacy. The two humans shared a glance, then shrugged, beginning to strip off their uniforms. They didn’t have pajamas, but a shirt and briefs should do the job just as well.
After a minute or two, the door opened, Maza leaning out to beckon to them. She was wearing another floaty garment made of gossamer fabric. It wasn’t unlike the tunics that she favored, but a little longer, kind of like a nightie. It wasn’t lingerie, it was a simple grey in color, and it wasn’t adorned with any lace or patterns, nor was it especially revealing. Jaeger and Baker made their way over to the bedroom, ducking through the low doorway. It was gloomy inside, there was just enough light to see by, tinted red so that it bathed everything in a crimson glow. The floor-spanning mattress was soft and spongy beneath their feet, and the hanging curtains gave it an almost Arabian vibe.
The flock was bunched up to the left side of the room, scattered in a fairly random pattern, resting their heads on tube-shaped pillows. They were close together, but not exactly in a pile, reminding Jaeger of a slumber party. They wore similar clothes to Maza, the only variation being the color.
The humans moved over to the right, lying down gingerly and stacking various cushions and pillows to support their heads as they struggled to get comfortable. It wasn’t the worst place that they Jaeger had slept, it could be quite pleasant once he got used to it.
There was plenty of space, and so the concerns of being forced to sleep in a dogpile with the aliens were soon forgotten, the humans drifting off to sleep without too much difficulty after their long and exciting day.
Jaeger was snapped out of a dream by a beeping alarm, struggling to his feet and stumbling on the squashy mattress as he made his way to the door, fumbling with the little handle.
“I’m up, I’m up,” he heard Baker mumble groggily. “What’s…what’s going on?”
The aliens too were stirring, blinking their eyes and flexing their feathers as they looked about the bedroom. Coza scowled at him, apparently not thrilled about being woken up. Jaeger succeeded in making it into the living room, retrieving his phone from the pocket of his uniform, which was draped over the table. Baker’s was ringing too, it must be a communication from fleet command. He swiped on the screen and held the device to his ear, shielding his eyes against the early morning light that was pouring in through the round windows.
“Lieutenant Jaeger reporting.”
“Lieutenant Jaeger, this is fleetcom. You are to report to the Yilgarn spaceport for briefing immediately.”
“Yes Ma’am, has something happened?”
“Colonel Roberts will brief you on the details.”
“Yes Ma’am, I’ll relay the message to Baker, we’re on our way.” He ended the call, turning to shout to his friend. “Get your ass out of bed Baker, we have to get to the spaceport ASAP. Something’s going down.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he complained as he stumbled out of the bedroom and checked his phone. Maza followed behind him, some of her companions poking their heads out of the doorway.
“Jaeger? What’s happening?”
“We just received orders to go to the spaceport for briefing,” he explained, “can you get us there?”
“Of course,” she replied, “give us a few minutes to get dressed first.”
There was another alarm sound, high-pitched and trilling, this one coming from one of the Valbaran tablet computers. Maza hurried over to it and picked it up, holding it up to her face as she spoke into it in her native language. After a moment she turned to Jaeger, a concerned flutter of purple spreading through her headdress.
“We’ve been ordered to the spaceport too. It must be something serious.”
“Alright, let’s get our gear,” Jaeger said as he began to pull on his uniform.
When they emerged from the patch of woodland beside the airfield, they noticed that there were several Valbaran landers lined up on the runway, their engines idling. A pair of Valbaran guards dressed in green camouflage and wielding laser rifles directed them towards the hangar where the UNN vessels were parked. When they entered through the massive doors, they saw that several Valbaran flocks, and what looked like all of the UNN combat personnel who had been deployed to Yilgarn were standing around in loose groups. Colonel Roberts was at the front of the pack, as sharply dressed as ever, his hands clasped tightly behind his back as he waited for everyone to arrive. It seemed that Jaeger and Baker were the last, and so he called for everyone’s attention, the crowd turning to face him as the newcomers joined their ranks.
“Two hours ago, an unidentified object entered Valbara’s atmosphere,” Roberts began. “It appeared to be under some measure of intelligent control, as it approached the planet at a velocity and angle that was conducive to surviving reentry. Judging by its trajectory, it slingshotted around the sun and used the inner gas giant to decelerate. The likely point of origin is the very edge of the solar system, inside the Oort cloud. It’s undoubtedly of Bug origin.”
A concerned murmur passed through the crowd. Everyone had known that a Bug invasion was imminent, but they had hoped to have more time to prepare. Xico and Tacka shared a worried glance, while Coza crossed her arms, her brow furrowing.
“It was a very small object, and as such, it barely registered on our instruments. It might have been dismissed as innocuous space debris, had it not landed just a few miles outside of Yilgarn’s walls. Two dozen more of these objects soon followed, which confirmed our fears, each of them landing in close proximity to a Valbaran population center. Our experts believe that these might be some kind of long-range probes and that the Bugs are testing our defenses. Due to their small size, they can’t be investigated from orbit, and so we’re going to be organizing you into several groups in order to travel to the impact sites and determine the exact nature of these objects. Because UNN personnel have more experience in dealing with Betelgeusians than their Valbaran counterparts, we’ll be sending a couple of humans with each team. Your orders are to locate the objects, document what you find, and recover them if possible. If you deem recovery to be too dangerous or otherwise impractical, you are to destroy them.”
He pulled out a tablet computer and began to list off names, the humans joining groups of Valbarans who then collected their equipment and weapons, finally making their way over to one of the idling landers.
Jaeger’s name came up, followed by Baker’s, and they were assigned to a flock of Valbarans wearing the green and purple camouflage that denoted them as military. It made Jaeger wonder how the chain of command worked. Was the whole flock of equal rank, and were their subordinates expected to take orders from all of them at once?
Maza’s flock joined them too. Apparently, the higher-ups didn’t see any point in separating them. They were clad in their usual form-fitting jumpsuits, blue and grey instead of green and purple. The UNN personnel began to pass out XMRs, along with the black body armor that was commonly worn by Marines. The aliens took the rifles, but they had their own variety of armor. Jaeger was shocked to see that the Valbaran soldiers were already proficient enough with the railguns to be trusted with them in the field, no doubt another product of their accelerated learning. They were a little larger than was convenient in the hands of the aliens, but they were strong for their size, and they had no trouble lifting them. Maza and her flock were given the blocky laser rifles of Valbaran design, they had been with Jaeger and Baker since they had landed on the planet, and so they hadn’t had time to practice with the UNN tech.
“Are we expecting to get into a firefight?” Baker asked, pulling on a black chest piece over his uniform and fiddling with the straps.
“You never know with Bugs,” Jaeger replied, affixing his helmet and switching on his HUD. It fizzled to life inside his visor, displaying a green overlay, and he began to tune the radio to local frequencies. “They say it’s a probe, but for all we know, it might start spontaneously spitting acid or lobbing plasma grenades.”
He checked his weapon, syncing the scope with his helmet and making sure that the battery was charged.
“Alright, here are our orders,” one of the green-clad Valbarans began. “Our team is charged with investigating the object that fell outside Yilgarn. It’s a short distance beyond the East wall. We will leave through the East gate and make our way towards the target on foot, where we will establish if the object poses an immediate threat, and then respond accordingly.”
“The East wall?” Maza asked, concern creeping into her voice. “That’s Teth’rak territory.”
“We’re aware of that,” the soldier replied, “which is why we’ll be treading carefully. We’ll have a spotter in the lookout tower keeping watch for the Teth’rak.”
“Can’t we just take one of the dropships and land directly at the target site?” Baker suggested.
“No, the Teth’rak will attack it,” Maza replied.
“What? It would attack a dropship?” he scoffed. “They’re designed to withstand reentry and AA fire, there’s no way an animal could bring one down.”
“It doesn’t matter if she can bring it down or not, what matters is that she will try. A Teth’rak will attack anything that enters its territory. She would spot a big, loud spaceship from miles away and she would see it as an invading enemy. If she attacks the dropship, then we would be compelled to defend ourselves, which we need to avoid at all costs. The Teth’rak sustaining any injuries is unacceptable.”
“So we can’t fire on that giant thing if it attacks us?” Baker asked.
“Absolutely not,” Maza replied, “under no circumstances are you to fire on the Teth’rak.”
“Even if it’s about to eat me?”
“Even then,” she said with a red flurry of feathers. “We are intruding on her territory, we must be respectful.”
“I guess it’s like shooting a white rhino or something,” Jaeger suggested with a shrug. “I’m not sure an XMR could bring that thing down anyway, not unless you hit the brain or the heart. You’d probably just piss it off even more.”
“That’s why we have this,” one of the Valbaran soldiers said, brandishing a weapon that looked very much like a forty-millimeter grenade launcher.
“And what’s that?” Baker asked.
The soldier plucked a metallic ball from her belt, showing it to him.
“Pheromone grenades. If there’s one thing that the Teth’rak hates more than anything else, it’s the scent of urine from other females of its species. The launcher will fire the grenade a good distance away from the user, where it will start to mimic the smell of Teth’rak scent marking. The attacking animal should then divert its attention away from us in order to defend its claim…probably.”
“So all we have to save us from the giant dinosaur is stink bombs? Got it,” Baker complained.
The giant wall began to split open, Jaeger watching as the two doors parted to reveal the countryside beyond. It was like a fortress. If the wall was two hundred feet tall, then the doors must have been fifty feet at least, opening wide enough that you could have driven five or six trucks through the opening side by side. He wouldn’t have even known that the gate was here, it was seamless, sliding into the wall to either side of it much like the gravity plate in the floor of the lookout tower had.
“Stay close,” one of the soldiers said, “roll up your sleeves and don’t make use of your color panels. The light might attract the Teth’rak if it comes into visual range.” She raised her arm, extending the plumes in a deep shade of red. “For the benefit of the Earth’nay, red means stop.”
The Valbarans rolled up their sleeves as instructed, flexing their sheaths like a human might roll his shoulders or stretch his arms. Jaeger was as excited as he was apprehensive. For the duration of his stay in Yilgarn so far, he had been confined within its walls, the only nature around him carefully sculpted and tended by the Valbarans. Now they were about to venture out into the wilderness, intentionally left to grow wild by the planet’s inhabitants.
The soldier waved them forward, and they began to march, their pace scarcely a brisk walk by human standards so as not to exhaust them too quickly. The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the heat and humidity, it was even more apparent on the outside. Were the city walls able to influence the climate within in some way?
Before them was a plain of blue-green grass, the ankle-length blades waving gently in the wind, making it look almost like an ocean. The fields and rolling hills extended far into the distance, punctuated here and there by large pockets of forest and patches of scrub like islands. The terrain wasn’t entirely flat, but it was flat enough that Jaeger could see straight to the horizon. Water was ever present, the lakes and rivers reflecting the light of the sun with a silver glow. Beyond the atmospheric haze, blue mountains rose into the azure sky, wisps of cloud smeared across it like the strokes of a paintbrush. It was an alien Serengeti, like the Valbarans had dropped their city into the middle of a savanna.
He looked back over his shoulder as they walked forwards, the white wall rising into the air behind him, almost devoid of any detail. The gate was already closing, locking them beyond the safety of the city. What Jaeger wouldn’t have given for an APC right about now, but even the most rudimentary vehicle would draw the monster, according to the Valbarans. They had to rely on being small and quiet, no doubt the same way that the aliens had survived their prehistory. They had to be sneaky and fast to escape anything that was bigger than they were.
“I’m already regretting putting this armor on,” Baker muttered as he walked beside him. “Whose bright idea was it to make these plates black? I feel like I’m going to melt out here.”
Jaeger too was beginning to sweat profusely. The system’s star was beating down on them, baking the ceramic plates that they were wearing, he couldn’t wait to get to the cover of the trees ahead. They were the same variety that he had seen inside the city, thick, fat trunks with leaves like palm fronds. As they neared the shade, he noticed that there were many other varieties of plants here too, growing wild and untended by the careful hands of the Valbarans.
There was a thick blanket of ferns, their colorful leaves a blend of greens and pinks, along with what looked like miniature trees with trunks that reminded him of pine cones. Splashes of red and yellow from flowering plants broke up the uniformity, and in an instant, they transitioned from open plains to what felt like a tropical jungle. It was even more humid inside, as if the plants were trapping the moisture in the air, the canopy above them blocking the sunlight and preventing the water from evaporating. The trees were so densely packed that Jaeger could no longer see beyond them after walking only twenty feet or so, it was like being teleported to a different planet entirely.
“Uh…do we need to watch out for snakes or anything like that?” Baker asked, the ferns rustling as he trudged through them.
“What’s a snake?” Maza asked as she walked beside him. Inside the forest, the purple and green camouflage worked remarkably well, and even the various shades of green and beige that colored the alien’s scales helped them to blend into the background. What was it that they had said about the Teth’rak, that it could see prey at a distance of about six miles? It must have eyes like a hawk, and maybe other predators that inhabited these regions did too. Even Maza and her flock were harder to spot with their ocean camo.
“It’s like a long, poisonous reptile with no legs,” Baker said as he lifted his foot over a protruding root.
“Venomous,” Jaeger corrected. “Venomous animals kill you with a bite or a sting, and poisonous animals kill you if you eat them.”
“I’m not sure,” Maza replied, the brush high enough that only her head and shoulders were peeking out. “We have some venomous reptiles and insects, but I don’t know how an Earth’nay might react to the toxins.”
“Well this day just keeps getting better,” Baker grumbled.
The Valbarans all seemed to have spread out to cover more ground, Jaeger could scarcely see most of them. Only the occasional flutter of color from their crests gave them away, the aliens communicating silently using their feathers. He had expected it to be very revealing, and yet the plants around them were colorful enough that it didn’t jump out like he had expected. For every flurry of yellow, there was a patch of yellow flowers to mask it. For every shade of pink and purple, there was a cycad with leaves in the same hues, blues and greens were of course abundant.
There was bird song everywhere, loud enough to be annoying, and for the first time, Jaeger was able to get a glimpse of one of the creatures. Something feathery flitted between the branches of a nearby tree, colorful like a tropical parrot, its little head twitching as it eyed the intruders from its perch.
A bird this was not, it looked more like an extinct missing link between birds and reptiles. It was shaped like a lizard with a long, flexible tail and dinosaur-like legs, its wings tipped with grasping claws and its snout missing a beak. It opened its mouth to reveal rows of tiny, needle-like teeth as it puffed up the plumes around its neck, chirping a song at them before fluttering away to another branch.
“Watch out for those,” Coza said as she gestured to the bird-lizard, “it might swoop down at you if it’s nesting nearby.”
“I’m surprised you can even see anything at all in here,” Baker said, “it’s just a mess of color to me. I feel like I can’t see five feet in front of my face.”
“Oh?” she asked, cocking her head. “Perhaps Earth’nay eyes aren’t suited to this environment.” It seemed more like a jab than an observation, Jaeger watching the camouflaged Valbaran slink away into the ferns like a ghost, her blocky rifle at the ready.
They continued on, Jaeger keeping one eye on the treetops. There were so many different kinds of plants that it became hard to keep track, and everything was so tightly packed together, like someone had taken five different botanical gardens and had thrown them into a blender. It was beautiful and confusing.
The lead Valbaran stopped abruptly, raising an arm and flashing its feathers in a shade of red. Everyone halted, Baker and Jaeger taking a knee amidst the pink ferns and shouldering their weapons. They had flipped up their full-faced visors because of the heat, and now Jaeger closed his, the integrated computer scanning his field of view for movement and heat signatures. He spotted something moving between two thick trunks a short distance ahead of them, scoping in on it.
Two large eyes peered back at him, and he recognized it as one of the brown-feathered ostrich-lizards that they had seen from the observation tower on the wall.
“It’s just a Gue’tra,” he heard someone say, “keep moving.”
The alien creature was skittish, abandoning the blue moss that it had been scraping off the trunk of a tree and fluttering its white-tipped wings as it fled away into the undergrowth. After a while, they arrived at the far side of the patch of forest, the Valbarans lurking at the edge of the plain as they peered out from between the trees. It seemed to be safe, and so they left the shade, emerging onto the savanna again. The change in heat and humidity was stark, another shock to the system. Jaeger couldn’t decide whether he wanted to make use of the automatic darkening feature on his visor to protect his eyes from the sun’s glare, or if he would rather feel the breeze on his face. The breeze eventually won out, and he flipped his visor up again, doing his best to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes.
More movement drew his attention, and he looked up to see a flock of birds, different from those that he had seen in the patch of forest. These were smaller and lighter, more traditionally bird-like, swarming through the air in an ever-changing pattern like a shoal of fish swimming through the water. They were far off, so he couldn’t make out very much detail.
He noted that the leader of the group had changed, now one of the Valbaran soldiers with a notably lighter scale color was at the head of the flock. It seemed that they were all of equal standing, all seven of them equally in charge. How did that work? How did they decide who got to make the decisions and when? They hadn’t paused so far to make a new plan, so whatever they were doing, they were doing it without any obvious communication. It was like second nature to them.
Maza’s flock was on the same page, moving silently save for the occasional feather signal. These were more complex than the simple flashes of color used to convey emotion, patterns and alternating hues sharing information that the humans couldn’t parse. This was probably how they hunted silently in their distant past, not so much as a whisper giving them away to their prey. Unlike humans, the Valbarans did not seem eager to distance themselves from their predatory, carnivorous past. They seemed to see themselves, and indeed they described themselves, as pack hunters.
Even Tacka, usually so timid and reserved, stalked the forest along with her sisters. He had to keep in mind that she too had flown a fighter during the dogfight in the Oort cloud, she was no less qualified than Maza or Coza to wield that rifle. It was as if by working as such a cohesive unit, they were able to lessen the weaknesses of each individual, Tacka’s meekness and Coza’s bravado less apparent when they were focused on a common goal. The flock really was greater than the sum of its parts.
They reached another island of forest, and this time the group stopped for a few minutes, the Valbarans resting and checking in with their superiors. There was no sign of the Teth’rak yet, and there had been no new Bug activity. Jaeger and Baker decided to do a little exploring while they waited for their companions to recover their strength, wading through the ferns and checking out all of the strange plants and animals.
They found some kind of lizard clinging to a tree trunk that was covered in green fluff, not quite fur and not quite feathers, along with more of the colorful reptilian birds that were hopping between the branches above them. There were insects everywhere, fluttering things with iridescent wings that seemed to be pollinating the colorful flowers.
When they reached the edge of the patch of forest, they crouched between the trees, staying in cover as they had seen the Valbarans do so as not to draw any unwanted attention. Across the plain, they saw something massive in the distance. There was a whole herd of creatures, perhaps two dozen of them standing around a pocket of jungle as they used their long necks to nibble the tops of the trees.
“Sauropods,” Baker marveled. “How far away do you think they are? They must be a hundred and twenty feet long at least, probably a hundred tons. It’s like seein’ a whale walking around on the land…”
They did indeed look like dinosaurs, they had round bodies that were propped up on four massive, elephant-like legs. Much like the Teth’rak and the Geu’tra, they were covered in a coat of feathers, these ones a vibrant blue in color. They sported tall, decorative crests that rose from their spines. Behind them trailed a long and flexible tail that tapered into a whip, a counterbalance to their long, giraffe-like necks. They were stripping leaves from the tallest trees using horny beaks, the ornate crests that rose from the tops of their heads catching the sunlight, they were like walking lighthouses.
“I never thought I’d be seeing anything like this when I became a pilot,” Jaeger laughed, taking a photograph of them with his phone. They heard rustling behind them, and Maza emerged from the undergrowth.
“Come on, we’re moving out. The target site is near.”
They made their way back to the group, following them out of the forest and into the open once more. Jaeger felt vulnerable as they marched across the open grassland with no jungle canopy to protect them. The patches of forest were perhaps a half mile apart on average, and so it was quite a sprint to make it back to safety.
The impact crater came into view in the distance, the grass around it charred and burned. The Valbarans advanced on it with their weapons raised, craning their flexible necks as they kept watch for danger. As the resident experts on Bug tech, Baker and Jaeger jogged to the front of the pack, reaching the lip of the crater and leaning over to peer inside with their rifles shouldered.
It was a perfect bowl-shape, the sand and dirt had been turned to glass in places by the heat of the impact, but it was empty.
“Uh…wasn’t there supposed to be a Bug probe here or somethin’?” Baker asked.
Jaeger walked around the circumference of the hole as the Valbarans looked on in confusion, deferring to the more experienced humans.
“We should not linger in the open for too long, Earth’nay,” one of the soldiers warned as she scanned the horizon for danger. They had taken up a defensive position, set up in a rough circle with each of them facing a different direction.
“Wait, there’s something here,” Jaeger said as he took a knee beside a patch of scorched grass. “Look at this. There are tracks coming up this side of the crater and out into the field. They’re like little indents, see that?”
“Yeah,” Baker confirmed as he leaned over his shoulder. “So our probe got up and walked out of here? It could be fuckin’ anywhere by now.”
A Valbaran in green camo sidled up beside him, peering down at the indentations in the soil.
“So you are suggesting that an organic probe could be fired from a spaceship, enter the atmosphere, dig a crater six feet deep, and then get up and walk away? These Betelgeusians are capable of such things?”
“Oh yeah,” Baker replied, “that’s the least impressive thing we’ve seen them do.”
The Valbaran seemed to pause, it was like watching a computer freeze up.
“What do we do?” she finally asked.
“We should probably follow the tracks,” Jaeger suggested, rising to his feet and shielding his eyes from the sun as he peered out across the savanna in the direction that the probe must have gone. “Any of you guys know anything about tracking?”
The Valbaran soldier whistled for her flock, Maza and her companions joining them in a huddle as the two humans waited nearby. They chittered and schemed, flashing their colorful plumes as they formulated a new plan to follow. They also made use of their handheld computers, holding what looked like a conference call with the higher-ups, a solitary head popping out to check for danger every few seconds. For not wanting to remain out in the open for too long, they certainly took their time, a UNN squad would already have moved out by now.
“We will follow the trail,” one of the soldiers finally said, Jaeger and Baker sharing a look of relief as they set off again. It was difficult to follow the tracks through the tall grass, they were little more than round indentations, no doubt left by pointed limbs like those of an insect. They were only about two feet apart, so whatever they were looking for wasn’t very large, and would likely be hidden by the grass. The aliens had a keen sense of smell, however. They picked up a scent that they described as a blend of burnt metal and ozone, following their noses where the tracks disappeared.
After meandering around for a while, seemingly directionless, the thing seemed to have chosen a target and set off with more purpose. The tracks formed a straight line, leading back in the direction of the city.
“It came here with a mission, obviously,” Jaeger said as they traced its steps. “It’s heading straight back to the city, probably so it can crawl up the wall and tell its hive ship what kind of defenses we have.”
“Have you seen this behavior before?” Maza asked as she bobbed along beside him. She seemed concerned, and after what her people had gone through on their lost colony planet, he couldn’t blame her.
“Not personally,” he replied, “but that’s the tricky thing about Bugs. They’re always changing, no two fleets are exactly alike. They usually build off of a kind of genetic blueprint that seems to be common to all hives, like they all start out with the same basic designs and then start…mutating them, based on their immediate needs.”
“So…your people don’t really know what we’ll be facing when the Bugs launch their attack?”
“Not exactly,” he admitted, “but let me put it another way. We’ve collectively fought dozens of individual Bug fleets over the last thirty years, and we beat most of them. Planets and systems changed hands a few times, we’ve had to give ground, but not often. That we’re here at all is proof that we’ve been able to push them back and expand our borders. Nobody is more qualified for this job than the UNN.”
That seemed to reassure her a little, but to be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure himself. It usually took fleets comprised of two or more carriers along with an armada of support ships, not to mention massive battleships that could dole out some serious damage, in order to defend an inhabited planet from a full-blown invasion. It didn’t happen very often either. The Bugs had never made it very far into UNN controlled space, they were mostly a problem on the outskirts where the colonies were less populated and harder to defend due to their remoteness.
Could the Rorke defend the planet with only the Valbarans for support? It depended on the size of the Bug fleet. It sounded as if the abandoned Valbaran colony that was likely its point of origin had been a fertile planet, and the more raw materials the Bugs had access to, the better equipped the fleets that they sent out would be. One hive ship and a limited support fleet they could definitely deal with. Two or three and a suitable number of support ships would be stretching it.
“We need to rest,” one of the soldiers said as she sidled up beside them, directing them to a nearby forest. They turned and made for the cover of the trees, the aliens locking their legs and checking in with command as they caught their breath in the shade. Jaeger wondered what kind of role the Coalition might be able to find for them if they should choose to join, they certainly couldn’t keep pace with UNN Marines on the ground. Perhaps they would be better suited to piloting roles.
Maza talked with the other aliens for a minute, pointing to something on one of the tablet computers, then returned to Jaeger and Baker.
“We have people checking the top of the wall, it doesn’t look like anything has climbed over it. At least there’s no evidence of that. The probe is probably still between the crater and the city.”
“That’s good news at least,” Baker said.
“There’s another problem, however. They have eyes on the Teth’rak, and she’s wandering this way. She hasn’t seen us yet, or she’d be moving faster, and we’re downwind of her so she won’t pick up our scent. Even so, we should try to get this done and get back to Yilgarn as quickly as possible. She’s about five miles South of us, and she can run at about twenty miles per hour, so if she spots us, we’re going to have…a little under fifteen minutes to get to safety.”
“We really don’t want to be out here in the open when she notices we’re here,” Coza added, “there’s no weapon or armor that will do us any good against her.”
“Shouldn’t we get back behind the wall and then come take another look when she’s moved off again?” Baker asked.
“No,” Jaeger replied. “We don’t know whether that probe is trying to send information back to the fleet, trying to poison the water supply, or trying to release some kind of deadly virus. Letting it run amok while we wait out the Teth’rak isn’t an option. We don’t have any time to waste, let’s get moving.”
They broke from cover and returned to the trail of Bug tracks, the city wall looming in front of them. They were almost back to the gate now, it was perhaps a quarter mile away from them to the right, still open a sliver. There was a large patch of forest to either side of them, maybe another half mile apart, and the Bug’s tracks arced off to the left where they seemed to end at the foot of the structure.
If what Maza had said was accurate, then the Teth’rak was probably a good distance South of the gate relative to them. They would have to move towards it to reach the probe. It was said to have good vision, and so it seemed likely that they would be spotted on this open field. They needed to get in and out fast if they didn’t want to end up as dinosaur food.
They reached the foot of the wall, and the tracks changed. Jaeger didn’t need to be a master hunter to see that the insect had tried to climb up the glassy surface, leaving scratch marks where it had scrambled to find purchase, and then it had given up and walked along to the wall to the left. They followed the trail a little further, the subtle curvature of the structure masking the end of it, and a hole eventually came into view. It looked about the right size for a large dog, and there was a mound of dirt nearby, the creature had tried to dig its way under the wall to get inside the city.
Jaeger took point, shouldering his rifle and edging closer to the hole. As he neared it, another spray of dirt was ejected from it, landing nearby to join the growing pile.
“It’s still here!” Jaeger announced, “back me up!”
The Valbarans formed a rough crescent around the burrow as Jaeger leaned over to look inside. It was dark, he couldn’t see very far, the thing had dug a pretty deep tunnel.
“So are we going to try and recover this thing?” Baker asked.
“If you want to squeeze down that hole and wrangle it, be my guest,” Jaeger replied. “I don’t see any conceivable way to get it out of there. Maybe we can lure it out with something? Scare it out?”
Baker stepped forward, aiming his XMR straight down into the hole and firing off a couple of rounds, the loud ‘crack‘ echoing across the plains. They heard the creaking sound of scurrying insect limbs, and then the probe burst out of the hole like a bat out of hell, vanishing into the tall grass. Jaeger hadn’t gotten more than a glimpse of it, but it looked like a giant, blue-shelled isopod or a woodlouse.
“Get after it!” Baker shouted, but the Valbarans were already moving. They raced through the grass, even faster than the Bug, quickly surrounding it and blocking off its escape route. They kicked at it with their taloned feet like birds trying to kill a snake, hissing and spitting as their feathery plumes rose into vibrant displays of red and orange. When Baker and Jaeger arrived, the Bug had curled up into a tight sphere about the size of an exercise ball. Its iridescent, blue shell was divided into segments, again very much like a woodlouse. The carapace was charred and scored, no doubt damage sustained during its hard landing, and there was a hole in its rear that was leaking yellow ichor where Baker had shot it.
“Alright, alright, back off,” Baker said as he warded the furious Valbarans away. Coza gave it one extra kick for good measure. He examined the creature, letting his rifle hang from its sling and scratching his chin. “Can we move it?”
“I’m not going to try to pick it up.”
Baker walked forward and slipped his hands underneath the blue carapace, straining to lift the thing. It wasn’t very large, but it looked heavy, the shell was probably partially composed of metal in order to shield it from the heat of reentry.
“Don’t just stand there, Bullseye, give me a hand here.”
Jaeger cursed, dropping his weapon to let it hang from his chest and making his way over to help Baker, taking the other side and struggling to raise it off the ground. Between them, they were able to carry it, the little critter seemed to want to stay inside its shell.
“Alright,” Baker sighed, shifting the weight around. “Let’s walk this thing back to the gate and-”
The Bug sprang to life again, uncurling in a flash and flailing its sharp legs, Baker and Jaeger yelling in unison as they released it. The pointed, chitinous limbs tore into their body armor, scoring it like a penknife on a wooden desk and leaving deep scars in the material. Jaeger caught a leg to the face, his visor cracking and the HUD fizzling out as the thing made another break for it.
“Fucking- just shoot it!” he shouted.
There was a chorus of gunfire, and then the scurrying probe lay motionless in the grass, its segmented body limp as a dozen holes in its blue shell leaked syrupy fluids. Some of them were smoking, no doubt a result of the laser weapons.
“Motherfucker,” Baker muttered, rising to his feet and brushing himself off. “I take back what I said about the body armor,” he grumbled as he looked himself over, “that thing had feet like knives.”
“Let’s take the body and get back to the gate,” Jaeger said, “I think that’s enough excitement for one day.”
As he walked over to the carcass and gave it a wary prod with the barrel of his XMR, he heard one of the Valbaran soldiers call out.
“Stand by, receiving a message from control.” Her feathers fluttered in shades of yellow and blue as she listened, turning to the humans with a frightened expression. “Teth’rak comes this way, we must hurry, Earth’nay.”
“The noise must have attracted it,” Maza added, her tone urgent. “Come, collect the Bug and let’s go!”
Baker and Jaeger took a couple of legs each, lifting it between them and hurrying in the direction of the gate. The thing was heavy and unwieldy, it was like trying to move a couch. The Valbarans clustered around them, weapons at the ready, and yet Jaeger knew that they would not fire on the creature. Not even if their own lives were on the line.
As they rounded the wall, the gate came into view, and then Jaeger heard a low-frequency pulse. It wasn’t heard so much as felt, the vibration shaking the ground and traveling up his spine, resonating in his very bones. He turned his head to look behind him and saw what looked like an angry explosion staring back at him. The Teth’rak was standing perhaps a quarter mile away.
It was looking straight at them, the orange feathers around its neck and shoulders puffed up to expose the red hues beneath, framing its massive jaws as it panted and dripped strands of saliva. Its beady eyes watched them, the two streaks of white coloration on its snout making them appear far larger than they actually were, its pearly teeth contrasting with its fiery plumage.
It emitted another call, the sound seeming to shake the earth. One would have expected the creature to open its jaws and loose an intimidating roar, but it sounded more like a whale, or maybe an unimaginably large alligator.
Everyone froze, Baker and Jaeger included, a deeply primal dread overcoming them. It was one thing to be shot at by an enemy, but there was an ancient terror associated with being eaten by a predator, rooted deep in the amygdala.
The two parties stared each other down for a moment, time crawling to a standstill. It began to walk towards them, its massive, three-toed feet splaying to carry its weight. Then it began to run, slowly gaining speed as it gave chase.
By the time Jaeger and Baker had dropped the Bug carcass, the Valbarans were already halfway to the patch of woodland nearest the gate, about seven hundred feet away. Only Maza lingered as she hastily gestured for them to follow.
“Come on, come on!”
They ran, following after the aliens who were already nearing the edge of the forest, the Teth’rak growing in size alarmingly quickly as it drew closer. Jaeger felt like he was trying to run in molasses, as if he was trapped in a nightmare. He was sprinting faster than he ever had before, but he was slower than everything else on this damned planet. The beast’s footsteps were reverberating through the ground like an earthquake, he could feel the thing gaining ground. The Valbarans had exhausted themselves, struggling the last two hundred feet or so and leaping between the cover of the stout tree trunks, Maza not far behind them. The two humans ran as fast as their legs would carry them, but their endurance was of no benefit here.
The Teth’rak was moving rapidly. About twenty seconds had passed, and it had covered half of the distance already, bearing down on them like a freight train made of teeth. There was something about the upward curve of its mouth that made it look like it was smiling at them, which somehow made it even more terrifying.
The forest was nearly within reach, and as the two humans neared the edge of the colorful ferns, they threw themselves between the thick trunks. Jaeger could feel the thing’s hot breath on his back, rolling as he hit the ground. A tremendous crash shook the canopy above him, showering him with leaves and broken twigs as the Teth’rak rammed the barrier with its titanic head.
Wood creaked, leaves rustled, and frightened birds took to the sky. But the roots ran deep, and the trees were strong enough to ward it off. As Jaeger scrambled away, shuffling backwards on his ass, he saw the Teth’rak’s orange snout press between the two round trunks as it tried to force its way through. He was close enough to smell the carrion on its breath, its nostrils flaring and blowing the nearby ferns as it took in his scent. It reminded him of a dog trying to grab a chew toy that had rolled beneath the couch, twisting and gnashing, its prey just out of reach.
It gave up, pulling back, the great head seeming to rise up into the sky. His heart leapt again as it came back into view, turning to the side and pressing its eye up against the gap. The proportionally tiny organ blinked as it focused, framed with that red and white patterning, the iris a striking shade of yellow. It looked right at him, and he saw a kind of dull awareness in its gaze, its pupil expanding as it watched him hungrily.
Again it rose out of view, and this time the creature moved off, legs as tall and as thick as the tree trunks walking by as it shook the earth beneath it. It was circling the patch of forest, trying to find a way inside.
Maza and Ayau rushed to his aid, helping him to his feet, the humans now as exhausted as the Valbarans. Jaeger’s heart was pounding in his chest in a way that he had never felt before, like it was trying to escape through his throat. Even during a dogfight, he always remained calm and collected. There was a kind of detachment to space combat, an odd tranquility that came with the total lack of sound. But now, he was scared almost out of his wits, sweat stinging his eyes as he flung off his damaged helmet and ran his hands over his damp face.
“You barely made it,” Maza gasped, “I thought I was going to have to watch you get eaten.”
“My sixth birthday,” Baker wheezed, Jaeger turning his head to see his friend sitting in the ferns beside him.
“What?” he snapped.
“When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, my wish was to see a real live dinosaur. This wasn’t what I had in mind.”
The Teth’rak released another resonating call, Jaeger cursing as it shook him to the bone. It was behind them now, trying to find a way to get at them, but it seemed as if the trees were too dense.
“Now what?” he asked, directing his question to Maza. “You guys won’t let us shoot it, so how do we get out of here? We can’t go back for the probe now.”
“Maybe we can get a dropship to come pick us up,” Baker suggested.
“No, the Teth’rak won’t let it land,” Maza warned.
“Jeez, maybe they could throw us a fucking rope?”
Maza whistled to one of the Valbarans, seeming to argue with her for a moment, and then the alien tossed her the grenade launcher. The weapon was breech loaded, and she snapped it open, checking the barrel before clicking it back into place with a look of determination on her face.
“We have the scent grenades, we can distract her, at least for a time.”
“Enough time to run back to the gate?” Jaeger asked.
“Probably,” she replied, a little more non-committal than Jaeger had been hoping for.
She whistled, calling the other Valbarans over, the aliens unlocking their legs and huddling.
“No, no huddling,” Jaeger said as they peered up at him with confused flurries of feathers. “There’s no time to waste, that thing could break through the trees at any moment. Maza, you’re going to fire that scent grenade as far as you can to our rear. We’re gonna wait for the Teth’rak to go check it out, and once it gets far enough away, we’re going to make a run for the gate.”
“The grenade will only distract it for so long,” she replied.
They jumped as there was another loud crash, the Teth’rak slamming the trees, using its head as a battering ram. More frightened birds erupted into the sky, screeching their alarm as it moved on, the orange feathers just visible through the dense trees as it stalked past.
“I guess there’s no point waiting,” Maza conceded, shouldering the grenade launcher and aiming above the canopy to the East of them. With any luck, it would draw the animal to the rear of the forest, blocking them from view when they made their escape.
“Just follow the plan,” Jaeger replied. “That’s what you guys do best, right?”
Maza pulled the trigger, the grenade shooting through the leaves and arcing into the distance. After a moment, they heard a crashing sound, followed by a low-frequency call as the creature abandoned its game of cat and mouse. The heavy footsteps grew fainter as it ran off to investigate the smell.
That was their signal, the Valbarans who had been poised at the edge of the forest shooting out like Olympic sprinters. Baker and Jaeger followed behind them, running out of cover and across the open plain, the wind rushing in their ears. They had discarded their heavy armor plating and their rifles, it wouldn’t do them any good if they ended up in the jaws of the Teth’rak.
As Jaeger ran, he turned his head to look over his shoulder, seeing the tail of the gigantic monster vanish around the edge of the small island of trees. When he swiveled his head to look in front of him again, he had almost caught up to the group of now spent Valbarans. They had run as far as they could, and now they were exhausted, limping along and panting. They were about halfway there, the open gate was tantalizingly close, but the little aliens had expended their energy. All they could manage now was a kind of slow jog, little better than walking.
“Heads up!” Baker shouted, scooping up the two slowest aliens who were lingering at the rear and carrying them under his arms. He ran ahead of the pack, reaching the door and flinging them through the narrow gap, where Valbarans wearing the light green of medical personnel were waiting to catch them. Jaeger saw what he was trying to do and followed suit, bundling the next two slowest aliens in his arms and pushing himself towards the gate, Xico yelping as he plucked her off the ground. He passed Baker, who was turning back to help the rest of them, releasing his charges near the opening before he too turned about and made his way back into the proverbial fire.
By now, the faster Valbarans were reaching the gate, Maza and the rest of her flock among them. As Baker returned with two more passengers, Jaeger made for the last straggler. To his horror, from around the patch of forest appeared the Teth’rak’s massive head, its orange plumes flaring into shades of red as it laid eyes on the intruders. It was done investigating the scent grenade, and now it was back to finish the job. It rounded the trees, breaking into a ponderous run that looked deceptively slow. Its size made its movements appear sluggish, and yet it must be running at twenty miles an hour or more, loosing another reverberating pulse of low-frequency noise. It sounded like the musical sting for a fucking horror movie.
Every fiber of his being told Jaeger to turn around and save his own skin, and yet he couldn’t abandon that last Valbaran. The little alien turned her head to look behind her as she struggled forward, her crown of feathers flaring in shades of shocked yellow and dismayed blue. He didn’t know this one’s name, she was one of the soldiers clad in green and purple camouflage, but something inside him compelled him to sprint towards the open jaws of the advancing beast. Images of Boomer’s Beewolf being split in half by the claw of the Bug carrier flashed in his mind, his friend’s torn cockpit tumbling away into the asteroids, Jaeger within spitting distance yet powerless to help.
Not again. Never again.
He skidded to a stop like a batter arriving at home base, the Valbaran extending her arms towards him, and he caught her around the waist as he dug his boots into the dirt. He summoned the last of his strength to power his body forwards, adrenaline coursing through his veins, his muscles burning as he felt the Teth’rak’s thunderous footsteps shake the earth.
The Valbaran clung to him like a baby monkey, her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs locked around his waist and her tail coiling around him like a snake. As he raced towards the gate, his friends beckoned to him, urging him on with dread etched into their expressions. No doubt the Teth’rak was right on his heels, its mouth open wide enough to swallow him whole, but he didn’t turn his head to look at it. He had one mission right now, and he wasn’t going to fail.
He flew through the small gap, rolling to the ground with his charge clutched in his arms, the Teth’rak ramming the gate with its sledgehammer head barely a second after him. The gates were already closing, and the gap was too small for the thing to get its wide snout through, but it tried all the same. There was the sound of rending metal as it used its teeth like a hatchet, swinging its head to drive them into the gate, throwing all of its immense weight at the obstacle. Jaeger kept a tight hold on the Valbaran as he sat on the ground, watching as the gates closed and the last sliver of orange feathers vanished. It looked like the door would hold, and as the monster loosed one final hair-raising call, the banging ceased.
The next thing he knew, the doctors were prying his arms apart. They guided the exhausted Valbaran towards the rest of the team, who were standing with their legs locked, or lying down as the medics tended to them. There was what looked like some kind of helicopter parked on the grass nearby, the same white color as all of their technology, save for markings in light green along the side. It seemed to have a single large rotor mounted on the top, the chassis rounded and streamlined, a landing ramp on the rear open to expose the interior. It was some kind of air ambulance, these must be what were parked on the landing pads at the hospital.
Baker was crouched off to the right, giving Jaeger a thumbs up as he drank from a water bottle that they had provided him. One of the medics scurried over to him and handed him a bottle of vaguely blue liquid, Jaeger wiping the sweat from his face on his sleeve and taking a long draw. It tasted sugary, like a sports drink.
“Did everyone make it back?” Jaeger asked, still catching his breath. The adrenaline was starting to wear off now, and he just felt exhausted.
“You saved them!” Maza threw herself into his arms, pushing her snout into the nape of his neck and nuzzling as she laughed giddily. She knocked him off balance, and he lay on his back, her face framed by the blue sky above them. “You went back for that soldier, she would have been eaten for sure. A second later and you would both have ended up in the Teth’rak’s stomach!”
“I…didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” he explained. She pressed her forehead against his, her sheaths extending and her feathers rising in shades of deep pink, her scales cool against his burning skin. For a moment, it was like nobody else existed, her violet eyes opening to meet his gaze, her pupils round and dark. She realized that she was straddling him, and she hopped off, seeming embarrassed by her impromptu show of affection.
“Drink,” she said, leaning in and guiding the rim of the plastic bottle to his lips. “Recover your strength.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” he protested. “I’ve run a lot further than that before, but I think I might have just beaten my record for the hundred-yard dash.”
She laughed, probably having no idea what he was talking about, but her relief was palpable.
“You two are heroes,” she said as Baker walked over to join them, reaching up to pat him on the back.
“All credit goes to Baker,” Jaeger said as he took another swig from the bottle. “Carrying the Valbarans was his idea, I was just following his example.”
“Yeah, but you were the one who almost got eaten by a dinosaur,” Baker chuckled as he offered him his hand. Jaeger took it, his friend pulling him to his feet and trapping him in a one-armed hug. “So what do we get? A medal, a key to the city?” Baker asked as he released Jaeger. “I’ll settle for a chance to fire a riot control grenade off the top of the wall at that toothy asshole. Fucker’s as mean as a rattlesnake.”
“He’s joking,” Jaeger said as Maza gave Baker a confused look. “Any injuries to report?”
“Everyone is fine, they’re just tired, a few pulled muscles and sprained ankles maybe. The medical personnel are administering fluids.”
“You guys really suffer when you push yourselves too hard,” Jaeger mused as he looked over the group of resting aliens. It looked like the scene of some kind of natural disaster or maybe a car accident.
“I assume that Earth’nay do too when they exceed their limitations,” she replied.
“I guess that’s true. How about you? Shouldn’t you be resting with the others?”
“I’ll survive,” she replied with a toothy grin.
“We need to report in,” Baker said, “fleetcom is going to be wondering where we are.”
“Oh shit, you’re right,” Jaeger muttered as he dug in his pocket for his phone. They had left the helmets, along with the rest of their gear, out on the plains. The people in charge of requisitions probably wouldn’t be too happy with them. The mission had been accomplished, however. The Bug probe had been destroyed. Perhaps someone could go out and recover the carcass when the Teth’rak had moved off, Jaeger certainly wasn’t going to set foot outside the gate a second time.
He saw something moving out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see the flock of soldiers approaching him, the rest of Maza’s flock following close behind them. The one at the front of the pack was the one that Jaeger had saved last, he recognized her tan scales.
“My name is Cuetz’xauh’qui,” she said, bowing her head. “You have saved my life, and the lives of my flock, Earth’nay. We are indebted to you.”
The aliens puffed up their plumes in a deep shade of red in unison, bowing before the two humans in what Jaeger recognized as a show of respect.
“You’re welcome,” Jaeger replied, not really knowing how else to respond.