Birds of Prey: Chapter 3

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“So how do we find a needle in a haystack?” Boomer asked, Jaeger glancing out of his canopy at the formation of three fighters that were lined up beside him. The dim glow from the nearby star reflected off their angular, stealthy hulls, like black glass when they caught the light. Only their canopies were illuminated, the glow of control panels and readouts lighting up the tiny pilots like someone holding a torch beneath their face while telling ghost stories around a campfire.

They had been tasked with scouring the Oort cloud for more Bugs, the Beewolf fighters small and light enough to cover a decent amount of ground. Pretty much every bird was in the air, split into groups of four and tasked with searching for contacts amongst the asteroids. They were skirting the wall of ice and rock right now, running long-range scans to pick up thermal radiation or any strange emissions.

“We got lucky last time,” Jaeger said, “we have a vague idea of where they might be hiding. Those fighters that we encountered were short-range, which means there’s a hive ship somewhere nearby. Find the hive ship, kill it, and we kill the Bug fleet. They can’t operate without it.”

When Bug fleets took to the stars to colonize a new planet, as was part of their life cycle, they did so in one or more hive ships that were roughly equivalent to a carrier. The massive organic ships were not only used to transport other vessels and personnel, but also the crucial supplies necessary for founding a new colony. A hive fleet was both dangerous and vulnerable at the same time. It was the stage of their life cycle when the Bugs were at their most aggressive, but at the same time, they were at their most exposed. Kill enough of the hive ships, and you would negate their ability to found a successful colony.

“Unless they’ve already colonized the inner planets and there are a billion of ’em further in-system,” Baker muttered.

“Not likely,” Jaeger said, “there’d be a lot more activity if that were the case. Besides, I heard that there aren’t any habitable planets in this system, only a couple of gas giants.”

“Doesn’t mean they can’t colonize the moons.”

“That isn’t our problem right now,” Scratcher chimed in, “just keep your eyes on your sensors. If we pick up anything bigger than a fighter, we’re supposed to call in backup. And make sure you get a positive ID on it before you call in the whole fleet.”

“Yeah, y’all remember your three Ds,” Baker scoffed. “Be nice to the aliens.”

“I prefer double-Ds,” Boomer added.

“That’s Scratcher’s line,” Baker chuckled. “Remember the cans on that Borealan he got caught with? Bigger’n his head, they were.”

Scratcher’s voice came through on the radio, attempting to talk over their laughter.

“Alright, alright. Keep your heads in the game, guys.”

The chatter quietened down for a while, but there wasn’t much to do or see out here, the sky was pitch black save for the twinkling of the far off stars. Contrary to popular belief, many of the beautiful nebulae and clouds of colorful gas that people imagined when they thought of space weren’t in the visible spectrum. They might be seen through telescopes and other such devices, but not with the naked eye. To their left, the infinite wall of rocks passed them by. They were traveling at immense speed, and it was hard to get a frame of reference without checking the counter on the console.

After maybe an hour of cruising, Jaeger picked something up on his scope, a heat blip somewhere in the asteroids.

“Eyes up people,” he called out, alerting his companions. “Picking something up on the infrared band. Something out there is kicking out a lot of heat.”

“I got it,” Baker added, “it’s hotter than the fighter we found yesterday.”

“Peel off and spread out,” Jaeger said, “we’re going in for a closer look.”

He gripped the stick, hitting the forward thrusters to shed velocity, straining against the straps that kept him secured to his seat. His squadron did the same, the thrusters on their bellies flaring and their engines burning brightly as they banked towards the asteroids one by one. They maintained formation, but they put some distance between the fighters, making themselves more difficult targets. Jaeger joined them, every change in velocity causing G-forces to tear at his body. He watched the small map in the bottom left of his visor that showed the locations of the other fighters relative to him, along with the red blip that they were now racing towards. The amount of heat either meant that whatever it was had been burning hard, or it was larger than what they had encountered the last time…

“Remember, don’t take any hostile actions until you can confirm that it’s a Bug ship,” Scratcher said. His voice sounded strained, they were still shedding velocity as they neared the cloud. “Or if it starts fucking shooting at you, either way.”

“They aren’t going to give us the same courtesy,” Jaeger warned, “be careful.”

The loose formation of fighters slowed enough that the asteroids were navigable, each vessel making tiny adjustments with bursts of gas from their thrusters as they avoided the debris, perpetually rolling and dodging as they advanced deeper. It was enough of a challenge to keep from crashing without having to keep their eyes out for the enemy too.

“Can we extend our railguns?” Boomer asked, “is that considered aggressive?”

“Fuck that,” Baker replied, “I’m goin’ hot.”

“Alright, but don’t point it at anything until we get a positive ID,” Jaeger said as he flipped the guard on his trigger. There was a rumbling sensation that reverberated through his boots as the hatch on the back of his ship opened, and the railgun arm extended, the targeting reticle appearing on his HUD.

“Fuck!” Baker exclaimed, Jaeger’s heart racing as he looked around for where the attack was coming from. “Fucking rock bounced off my wing,” he added.

“You asshole, Baker,” Jaeger complained. “Maintain radio silence unless you see something.”

This time the heat signature wasn’t fading, and the four fighters slowly maneuvered through the asteroids as they neared the source. One of the larger rocks slowly rotated amidst the cloud of debris, it must have been a few kilometers wide, jagged and pockmarked from a millennia of collisions. Jaeger pointed his scanners at it, watching as his computer drew a wireframe image of the object and overlaid it on top. The desire to target his railgun was strong, instinctual, he had to make a conscious effort to keep his finger away from the trigger as he scoured the surface of the rock for activity.

“There! Got something,” Scratcher announced. “Feeding you video.”

Scratcher’s ship was out of view, but he must have a clear line of sight, because Jaeger began to receive a video feed that appeared in a window in the top right of his HUD. It showed a grainy image of a rocky outcrop, what little light that actually made it from the system’s star casting it into stark shadow. It was hard to get an idea of the size with no point of reference and no atmospheric haze, it could have been the size of a snowdrift or a mountain.

“I’m gonna shine my floodlight on it,” Scratcher said, and then the feed was lit up by a bright light. It looked like there was ice beneath the outcrop, reflecting in the camera, but there was something else there too. Lodged beneath the lip of rock like an insect hiding beneath a log was…a thing. It had a long, segmented body like a mantis shrimp or a lobster, tapering into a kind of thick tail. The armor was shiny and iridescent, hues of red and orange illuminated by the beam. Beneath it were dozens of insectoid legs of varying lengths, anchoring it to the dusty surface of the asteroid, the ones towards the bulbous front of its body longer and covered in what looked like large hooks. Each segment of its long tail had strange bulges protruding from it, two on each one for a total of maybe ten, a glint of metal reflecting off them. It didn’t really have a defined head, but there was a bundle of what looked like wiry antennae and compound eyes hidden beneath the lip of its shell, twitching and shifting as Scratcher’s floodlight disturbed it.

Artwork by Gungulon:

They didn’t need to scan the thing to know that it was of Bug origin, and the video feed showed Scratcher’s guns firing as he began to pull back. Jaeger was already checking his position on the map, spinning his Beewolf’s nose towards his friend and gunning the engine. Acceleration crushed him against the padding of his seat as he opened his gun port and armed his missiles.

The flashes of gunfire and the orange bloom of explosions appeared in the distance, Jaeger decelerating so as not to overshoot, the G-forces buffeting him in his cockpit like he was riding a mechanical bull. Slowing down went against his every instinct, but in space, you didn’t shed velocity once you eased off the throttle, you just kept going. He gritted his teeth, swinging his vessel to face the enemy as he drifted sideways, the computer doing its best to compensate with bursts from the thrusters.

The thing was huge, far larger than it had appeared on the video. Compared to Scratcher’s tiny fighter, it looked to be about as big as a frigate, at least a hundred and fifty meters long. The little speck was retreating as the monster rose from its hiding place like a Kraken, spraying it with lines of glowing tracer fire that ricocheted off its armored hull and peppering it with missiles. Jaeger joined the fight, locking on with his railgun and unloading into the massive target, relying on the computer to handle targeting as he focused on positioning. The two other fighters soon came into range, but it was immediately apparent that they lacked the firepower to take this monster on.

“Don’t waste your missiles!” Scratcher said, “it’s too big. We need to call in backup!”

“What do we have that can kill this thing?” Baker asked. “Torpedo boat?”

“I’m calling it in,” Jaeger said, switching channels hurriedly. “Mayday, mayday. This is Bullseye, come in control.”

“This is control,” a woman’s voice crackled in his ear, “report.”

“Have encountered a large Bug vessel hiding in the belt, too big for us to deal with. We need immediate support, this thing is the size of a frigate.”

“Roger that, Bullseye, please hold.”

Please hold? Easier said than done, he thought, watching as one of the creature’s long forelimbs swiped at Scratcher. The Beewolf dodged out of the way, lines of thrusters flaring along the sides of the Bug vessel’s segmented body like green candles as it rose higher from the surface of the asteroid, its many legs tucking beneath its body.

“Come in Bullseye,” control said.

“Bullseye here, go ahead.”

“Redirecting the UNN Baskeyfield to your position, stand by.”

The Baskeyfield, that was one of their torpedo frigates, it should be able to get the job done. They just had to hold out long enough for backup to arrive. Its engines were far larger and more powerful than those of the Beewolfs, resulting in a much higher top speed, but it had a lot more tonnage to move around. It would take longer to both accelerate and decelerate.

“Can I get an ETA on that, control?”

“Ten or fifteen minutes, Bullseye.”

“Frigate is on the way in fifteen, guys,” he said as he switched channels. “Let’s try and draw it out of the asteroids so that the torpedoes can get a lock on it.”

“Watch the reach on its arms,” Scratcher said, grunting as he accelerated away from the biological spaceship. It flicked out one of its massive forelimbs again like a praying mantis, the barbs that lined it as long as a person was tall. It looked slow, but that was an illusion due to its size, Scratcher only just getting out of range of it as the limb missed him by a hair. Its spindly antennae twitched, its wet, glistening eyes shifting independently of one another as it tracked the different fighters. Didn’t it have missiles, plasma guns, projectile weapons of any kind? What was its purpose? Did it fill some kind of non-combat role, like harvesting ice or other raw materials to take back to the hive ship?

Everyone kept their distance, backing off as the thing chased them, moving sluggishly through the asteroids due to its immense size. It was large enough that it could just knock any rock smaller than itself out of the way, pushing them aside with its limbs and letting them bounce off its tough shell. Unlike the hull of a traditional spaceship, the Bug’s body was organic and flexible, which gave it an advantage in this kind of environment.

“The cannons ain’t doing shit, keep hittin’ it with the railguns,” Baker said. The carapace might be too thick for the conventional ammo to penetrate, but the tungsten slugs from the railguns were definitely getting through. They might get lucky and hit the pilot, or an internal organ, or whatever the hell was lurking beneath that shiny shell.

One would expect shouting and panic in the heat of battle, but everyone stayed remarkably calm. There was something impersonal about space combat, the distances involved, the relative tranquility of the sealed cockpit in which the only sound to be heard was that of your own instruments.

“Keep pulling back,” Scratcher said. “If we can lure him into open space, then he’ll be vulnerable.”

The fleshy humps along its segmented back and tail began to wriggle, the movements immediately drawing Jaeger’s eye.

“Somethin’ weird is happening,” Baker exclaimed, “look at it’s back!”

He watched in horror as something living crawled out of one of the humps. Segmented legs gripped the shell of the creature, pulling its bulbous body out from beneath a fleshy hood, like a maggot emerging from a wound. It was one of the fighters that they had encountered the day before, its carapace lined with metal armor, its compound eyes reflecting the light. It looked like it had been living inside the hump on the larger vessel’s back, like some kind of parasite.

“It’s some sort of carrier!” Jaeger exclaimed, “there must be ten of them on its back! Break off!”

More of the insectoid fighters pulled themselves from their organic hangars. Each one had a differently colored hull, birthed into space along with gas and fluids that froze into sparkling, crystalline clouds. Had they been refueling? Feeding on the larger vessel in the same way that a ship might siphon chemical fuel from a tanker?

Flashes of green light reflected on the curved carapace of the carrier as they blasted off, angling themselves towards the Beewolfs, their spindly legs tucking beneath their bellies and their glittering eyes fixed on their targets.

Chaos ensued, the Bug fighters scattering in all directions as they made for the Beewolfs, the human vessels scrambling as bursts of glowing plasma fire and tracer rounds lit up the darkness. Missiles left chemical trails in the sky as they burned towards their targets, impacting on rocks or exploding the Bugs into clouds of shattered carapace and organic mush, bright flares shooting out in mesmerizing patterns as the UNN ships took evasive action.

Jaeger veered off, disabling his safety limits as he burned away from the melee. His railgun continued to the track the enemy vessels, rotating and twisting on its arm as the Beewolf dodged and rolled.

Three of the Bugs had taken an interest in him, their plasma fire splashing against the rocks nearby like globs of acid, the not-quite-gas and not-quite-liquid melting into the stone like hot magma. One of them released a torpedo that sought him out like a bloodhound, perhaps attracted to heat or the smell of his engines, tiny eyes and protruding antennae clumped around the front of the metallic tube where the guidance system would have been on a human-made missile.

Jaeger flipped his vessel so that the nose was pointing upwards and slightly back, his engine flaring as he changed direction, the violent G-forces making his vision go grey as his flight suit constricted around his legs to prevent his blood from pooling there. His fighter rose in an upward arc, panels opening on the rear of his chassis to release a payload of glowing flares that spewed forth in a wing-like pattern. The Bug torpedo seemed drawn to them, veering off-course and slamming into a nearby asteroid, the rock crumbling and breaking apart as the missile exploded in a plume of green plasma.

Eight Gs, nine Gs, his HUD blinked a red warning symbol as it counted up and up. He had to ride that infinitely fine line between two deaths, blacking out and slamming into an asteroid, or burning up at the hands of the Bugs. It was like walking a tightrope over a bottomless chasm, as thin as a hair, the limitations of both his spacecraft and his own body guiding him.

As he leveled out, his vision cleared long enough to see his upside-down railgun score a hit on one of the pursuing vessels. The hail of slugs drilled through its forward sensor bank, as much of a head as a living spaceship could possess, the craft immediately losing coordination and beginning to drift.

Jaeger glanced across the battlefield at his comrades, just long enough to see the giant, shrimp-like carrier flick one of its arms out like a hatchet. It was aiming for Boomer’s fighter, his callsign tagged on Jaeger’s HUD, his vessel flying backwards as it fired its twenty-five-millimeter cannon at a pursuing Bug. He was too focused on the fight to see it, and before Jaeger could even speak a word of warning, the fifty-foot long limb cleaved his ship in half. It came down like a woodsman’s axe, the sharp barbs that lined the forelimb tearing through the metal hull like it was made of paper, splitting it into two clean pieces. The half with the cockpit tumbled as it flew away, momentum carrying it off into the asteroid field, coolant and fuel spewing from the ruined airframe like dark blood.

“I’m hit!” Boomer’s distorted voice came through on the radio, Jaeger could hear his rapid breathing in the confines of his helmet. “I’m spinning!”

His radio transmission fizzled out, there wasn’t anything that Jaeger could do for him right now. They would have to send out a search party once the fighting was over and hope that he hadn’t smashed into an asteroid. His suit would be able to keep him alive for a few hours at least, if it wasn’t breached or damaged. Dwelling on it would do no good, Jaeger cleared his mind and focused on the task at hand.

“Pull back!” he ordered, “we’re going to get overrun if we don’t make it into open space!”

It was a fighting retreat, the vessels aiming their railguns behind them to lay down covering fire as they popped flares and pushed themselves to the limit. The G-forces threatened to make them black out as they dodged and rolled, using the asteroids as cover to avoid the volleys of plasma fire that followed after them. The Beewolfs were faster than the Bug fighters, but the Bugs were more maneuverable, their tolerances for the extreme Gs far higher than that of any human. They could endure harder accelerations, more sudden changes in velocity, things that would have turned a human to pulp in his suit. The carrier lagged behind, but it was slowly accelerating, knocking the asteroids aside like bowling pins as the lines of engines along its flanks propelled it forward on jets of green flame.

The flight computer couldn’t calculate a safe route through the debris with all the dodging and weaving that Jaeger had to do to shake off the Bugs that were on his tail, and so he had to trust his instincts, relying on split-second reactions and raw gut feeling to navigate. There were still two Bugs locked onto him, bursts of plasma shooting past his wings so close that they singed his stealth coating. They weren’t able to gain ground on him, but he couldn’t lose them either. In the targeting window of the railgun that was serving as his rear-view mirror, he could see the monstrous, lobster-like carrier as it smashed through obstacles and turned the massive rocks to spreading clouds of rubble. It was relentless, its black, dead eyes fixed intently on its quarry.

They finally reached the edge of the asteroid field, bursting out into open space like they were breaching the surface of an ocean, dust and ice particles trailing from their wings like contrails. Immediately that sense of claustrophobia vanished, the twinkling stars greeting Jaeger like old friends, and he checked his HUD to make sure that his wingmen had made it out too. He could see Scratcher and Baker’s callsigns tagged on his display, his radar mapping the wall of asteroids. He spun on his axis to face it, letting the momentum carry him away. Out here, the maneuverability of the Bug fighters wouldn’t count for much. The Bugs followed close behind, seven of them left, shooting out of the dust cloud like bullets.

To their rear, the carrier emerged, exploding out of the Oort cloud like a battering ram. It sent the asteroids scattering, still gaining momentum as it surged towards the fighters, the rocks bouncing harmlessly off its thick shell.

“Hold them off!” Scratcher said over the radio, his voice crackling with static. “The torpedo frigate can’t be more than five minutes out.”

Now that the odds had been evened out, Jaeger felt a surge of excitement welling up inside him. This was he had trained for, what he lived for, six degrees of freedom and enough firepower at his fingertips to reduce a whole squadron of Bugs to worm food.

“Keep drifting out, let them follow us, we’ll lead them straight into range of the frigate. Focus fire on the fighters, ignore the carrier!”

The three Beewolf fighters opened up in unison, even the railguns having to lead their targets at such extreme range and velocity. The Bugs scattering to make themselves harder to hit as the distance between them was bridged by lines of tracer fire and missile trails. Jaeger watched as one of the missiles found its target, the Bug erupting into an explosion of viscera and tangled metal, another succumbing to a well-placed railgun salvo that must have hit some kind of critical system or organ. It spewed yellow goo from its wounds, the liquid turning to glittering crystals as it froze.

The fight was not entirely one-sided, however. The Bugs still outnumbered them, the Beewolfs forced to dodge a hail of glowing projectiles. One of the organic vessels loosed another torpedo, the weapon locking onto Scratcher and hurtling towards him.

“Out of flares!” Scratcher shouted, breathing heavily into his helmet as he tried to evade. The missile was agile, Jaeger tearing his eyes away from his target for a moment to watch as his friend’s ship burned away in a dangerously tight arc. It was risky, Jaeger could see that he was pulling too many Gs, the torpedo shooting bursts of gas from its nose and tail as it turned to chase him down.

“Eject Scratcher, eject!” Jaeger shouted as he watched the torpedo close. There was no way that he could outrun it, the Bug weapon leaving a sparkling trail of propellant in space as if marking its path.

“I got it!” Scratcher replied, his voice straining as he endured the acceleration. In a few seconds, he wouldn’t be able to eject. He’d be unconscious, and his drifting vessel would be destroyed anyway. “I got it…I got…fuck!”

Jaeger breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the canopy pop off with a burst of gas, the oxygen contained within turning into a cloud of frozen crystals, the ejector seat propelling Scratcher clear of his doomed vessel on a plume of flame. Not a second later, the Bug torpedo hit the Beewolf. A billowing cloud of green energy engulfed it, the black chassis slagging like a plastic toy being melted under a magnifying glass before the fuel tanks exploded. The wreckage continued on, sparkling metal and molten hull material spraying into the void.

“I think we’re in trouble here, Bullseye,” Baker muttered. “Where the hell is the Baskeyfield?”

“New contacts on radar,” Jaeger said, failing to conceal the alarm in his voice. “I’m picking up four, no, five contacts heading towards us at high speed.”

“I see them,” Baker confirmed, “they’re not coming from inside the asteroid field. They’re skirting the edge of it. That formation is tighter than anything I’ve ever seen…”

“Try and get a lock on them,” Jaeger said as he rolled his vessel upside-down, narrowly avoiding a trail of plasma rounds. Baker was right, they were in trouble. With two fighters down, they had to contend with three or four Bug fighters each. That was a tall order, even for him. “Fuck, watch out! Another missile!”

One of the remaining fighters released a projectile that had been clutched against its belly with its spindly legs, another plasma torpedo speeding towards Jaeger. His HUD flashed a warning symbol, alerting him that it was locked on, an ominous red blip appearing on his map. He gunned the main engine, veering away as he popped his flares, the bright beacons reflecting off his glassy hull as they spread out in their wing pattern. The corners of his vision began to darken once again, his suit tightening like he was being vacuum-packed, his every muscle straining as he pulled the flight stick back.

The missile was only temporarily distracted by the flares this time, quickly finding his scent again and barreling towards him as they faded.

“It’s on me,” he hissed through gritted teeth, using his thrusters to corkscrew his ship in an attempt to throw off his pursuer. It was smaller than him, faster and more agile, without an organic pilot to limit its maneuvers. His finger hovered over the emergency eject button, his mind fogging from the lack of blood, his railgun taking potshots at the closing missile and failing to hit the slim target.

A green beam of light was projected from the darkness, his video feed pixelating and corrupting, holding on the missile with perfect accuracy. It melted through the housing, a burst of escaping propellant sending the torpedo spinning off course. Jaeger struggled to turn his head, his bleary eyes widening as he located the source of the laser.

There was a formation of ships speeding towards the fight, his visor zooming in on the distant objects. It wasn’t Bug reinforcements, it was the aliens that had come to Baker’s aid the day before. Their ships looked like rounded, aerodynamic arrowheads, the hulls sleek and the points of their stubby wings upturned. There was a canopy towards the pointed nose, but he couldn’t make out anything inside at this resolution.

The vessels were painted with speckled grey-blue camouflage, as if designed to make them harder to spot in an atmosphere, and along their flanks were the colored panels that Jaeger had spotted during their last encounter. They almost looked like LCD panels, running from the nose to the tail. As he watched, the lead vessel sent a wave of flashing light along its body like a cuttlefish. The other ships in the formation reciprocated, waves of indigo and deep purple flashing in the darkness. Could they be communicating with one another?

They were flying in such close formation, they couldn’t have been more than a few meters apart. In space, that was close enough to be in spitting distance, and the coordination required could only have been matched by a trained aerobatics team.

As he watched, each of the five vessels produced a beam, the green lasers focusing on a single Bug ship. The target vessel immediately slagged and burst into flames, the heat igniting the gasses and fuels contained within it like pouring gasoline on a fire. The formation shot past like a bullet, more flashes emitted by their strange color panels as they banked in perfect sync, coming around for a second pass.

“Hold your fire, they’re friendly!” Jaeger warned.

“You think I can’t figure that out for myself?” Baker shot back, “keep firing!”

The tables had turned, and Jaeger engaged the nearest Bug ship with renewed confidence as the mysterious aliens targeted another with concentrated laser fire. The Betelgeusians seemed confused by the sudden appearance of the aliens, breaking off and splitting their attention between both targets. It took some of the heat off Baker and Jaeger, the pair firing their engines as they moved to support the strange fighters.

“Look how they’re flying!” Baker marveled, “it’s like an airshow.”

The alien formation split into two groups, veering off in opposite directions to take on different targets, it was like watching a carefully choreographed dance. Jaeger fired his cannon at one of the distracted Bug ships, the rounds hammering it, drawing a long and bloody trail across the length of its hull. He swooped in to finish it off with a few railgun shots, zipping past the drifting carcass with only a few feet of clearance.

“Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

The battle was turning in their favor now, the Bug squadron was in disarray, but Jaeger’s excitement was soon marred by the looming shadow of the carrier. The giant lobster came into range, blocking out the light from the nearby star and casting him into darkness, Jaeger twisting his stick as he avoided its bulky body by a hair. He watched through his canopy as the segments of its long tail whipped past overhead, looking over his shoulder as the thing barreled forward.

Baker and their new allies mopped up the remaining fighters, the last one succumbing to a well-placed missile, the fragments of its ruined hull tumbling end over end as they hammered into the side of the giant carrier. The behemoth was unfazed, its long antennae twitching and its glittering eyes pivoting as it tracked the enemy vessels.

What was it going to do next? Its complement of fighters had been shot down, and it didn’t seem to have any ranged weapons with which to fend off the Beewolfs and the colorful aliens. Jaeger and Baker kept up their railgun fire, peppering the thing’s armored shell, the aliens pulling back into a formation of five as they drew burning trails across its hull with their lasers. Nothing was getting through, that shell could be meters thick, they would have to count on the frigate to deal the killing blow.

“Shit,” he exclaimed, “the frigate!” He switched channels, trying to contact the incoming vessel before it arrived, it must be right on top of them by now. “Baskeyfield, come in Baskeyfield, this is Bullseye.” No reply, fuck. “Baskeyfield, come in!”

“This is the Baskeyfield,” a distorted voice said, Jaeger exhaling the breath that he had been holding in.

Baskeyfield, we have friendly aliens on the field, do ‘not‘ target them. Repeat, we have friendly aliens on the field. Target only the…the big fucker. Do you copy?”

“We copy you Bullseye, ‘big fucker‘ is on our radar. Repeat, eyes on big fucker. Suggest you get clear of the engagement zone.”

Jaeger turned his head this way and that, searching for the incoming frigate. There, a massive heat signature on his scanner, closing fast. He got a visual on it, zooming in to see the frigate’s massive engines flaring at full burn, four nozzles arranged in a diamond shape that were spewing superheated gas as bright as a sun. It was coming at them ass-first, decelerating using its main engines, probably already locking torpedoes on the Bug carrier.

“Get clear,” he warned, “the torp boat is on station.”

Baker didn’t need to be told twice, spinning and putting his engine towards the carrier, burning away from it. The aliens were still doing passes, Jaeger had to find a way to get their attention. His mind raced, he couldn’t just leave them here to potentially be caught in the crossfire, not after they had saved his ass. Think Jaeger, think!

He thumbed a button on his control panel, turning his nose towards the formation of arrowhead fighters, flashing his floodlight at them. They seemed to like light, maybe they would respond to it. He could practically feel the bulk of the Baskeyfield bearing down on them, he couldn’t linger here for long, shining his beam and wiggling his wings as he let momentum carry him.

To his relief, they noticed him, turning towards him as he began to burn away. The giant Bug made to pursue them, but it had a lot of mass to move around, and it struggled to shed its forward momentum. It slid like it was on ice, its lines of thrusters moving independently as they tried to steer its bulk in a new direction.

The alien fighters took up formation beside Jaeger, giving him a closer look at their sleek hulls. Their aerodynamic chassis were lined with what almost looked like heat tiles, painted over with their ocean camouflage, the silver gleam of exposed machinery visible beneath it here and there. The color panels seemed to be made up of individual cells, like rows of computer monitors, and he could even make out what looked like scorch marks on the noses of the craft. Residue from atmospheric flight maybe? Were these vessels also spaceplanes? They couldn’t be long-range, where had they been launched from?

He could see something moving around beneath the raised canopy of the nearest fighter, but he couldn’t make out much detail, it was blurry and indistinct. These weren’t drone ships, there was something piloting them…

Jaeger looked back over his shoulder at the pursuing Bug carrier, the glare of the frigate’s engines reflecting off its iridescent carapace. The UNN vessel was still hundreds of miles away, but that was more than close enough for it to fire. As he zoomed in on the approaching ship, he saw a speck rise from its hull on a plume of flame. He couldn’t see it at this range, but he knew from experience that one of the many torpedo hatches that were spaced out along the top of the roughly two hundred meter long vessel had opened, a missile the length of a city bus shooting out of the tube.

Artwork by SickJoe:

He tracked it as it sped towards the carrier, gaining velocity as its targeting systems made minute adjustments, crossing the distance alarming quickly. His visor darkened automatically to protect his eyes from the glare as the torpedo slammed into the Bug’s midsection, a massive explosion tearing through the giant creature. The shockwave rocked it, the beast seeming to lurch, and then it was blasted into two clean halves. It resembled a lobster that had just been smashed with a hammer, fragments of its colorful shell spreading outwards in an expanding cloud along with charred flesh and torn metal, its many legs twitching and its engines petering out. The midship, if you could call it that, was partially vaporized where the torpedo had struck it. Gore and fluids leaked from its ruined body, the two halves drifting apart to expose what looked like organs and flesh on the inside, wrapped around metal structural beams like vines choking a tree.

Jaeger wanted to celebrate, but there were two pilots missing and every second counted. He opened a channel to the Baskeyfield, static crackling in his ear.

“This is the Baskeyfield, go ahead Bullseye.”

“We have two pilots down, one ejected and one is missing inside the asteroid field. You need to scramble rescue boats immediately. We can assist in the search efforts if necessary.”

“Copy that Bullseye. We have Scratcher on our scope, his beacon is still active. Life signs are steady. No read on the second beacon, the asteroids might be blocking it.”

“Roger that, Baskeyfield, me and Scorch are gonna stay on station and-”

“Contact!” Baker announced.

Something large emerged from superlight nearby, its bulk vomited back into reality along with a cloud of colorful gas, like a technicolor smear on the black canvass of space. Jaeger’s instruments lit up, warning him of the impending threat, radar and thermal sensors feeding him data on its mass and energy output. It was larger than the frigate, perhaps three hundred meters in length, the hull composed of various metallic alloys. There was a large nuclear generator inside that was kicking out a lot of heat, no doubt already recharging the jump drive. Where had it come from, and how had it found them?

He looked out of his canopy, the giant ship hanging in space at the edge of the Oort cloud, its white hull reflecting the light from the far off star. It was long and thin, seemingly made up of rounded segments or cylinders that were joined together, clearly not of Bug design. At one end was what resembled a bridge, with windows that looked out into space, and to the rear was a bulky engine module. In the center was a ring, not unlike that of the Pinwheel space station, connected to the main body of the ship via spokes as it slowly rotated. Centrifugal force to simulate gravity, did they not have artificial gravity generators?

The alien fighters left their formation, Jaeger watching them as they broke off, heading towards the strange vessel. It must be their mothership, was this their version of a carrier?

“It’s locking onto us,” Baker warned.

“Hold your fire, I’m sure they’re friendly,” Jaeger replied. “They’re probably scanning us.” He switched channels to the Baskeyfield again, the captain of the ship outranked him. “Baskeyfield this is Bullseye, what are your orders?”

“Captain says hold fast,” the operator replied, “we’re putting a call through to the Rorke.”

“I don’t like this, not one bit,” Baker muttered. “They might have been friendly so far, but that ship is a lot bigger’n we are, and we have no idea what it’s capable of.”

Baskeyfield says hold fast,” Jaeger said, relaying the orders. “They’re scanning us, so scan them back if it makes you feel any better. Just remember your three Ds, and keep your railgun in your pants.”

“Three Ds my ass,” he grumbled, but it looked like he was keeping his cool. His weapon ports were closed, and his railgun was stowed. Jaeger did likewise, closing the port on his cannon and retracting his railgun. The alien ships took up position around the larger vessel, docking with it belly-to-hull. Apparently, there was no hangar for them to land in. The more he looked at it, the more primitive this vessel seemed. Their carrier was too small to have a hangar, so they docked externally, the same method used by archaic human spacecraft. They couldn’t generate their own gravity, so they had to use a spinning torus to simulate the effects. Unless that big ring served some other purpose, but Jaeger couldn’t imagine what.

Either way, they had advanced weaponry and superlight technology, which made them a threat. He kept his sensors fixed on the ship, just in case they decided that the UNN were no more welcome here than the Bugs. The standoff continued for a few more minutes, and then there was another burst of multicolored gas. The Rorke emerged from the tear in reality, the colorful residue spreading in its wake like a ripple on the surface of a lake. Seeing its massive, ocean-grey bulk immediately set Jaeger at ease, it looked like a small moon in comparison to the alien vessel. Its hull bristled with weaponry, not currently targeting the unidentified ship, but it was an admirable show of force.

The rest of the support fleet followed behind it, pulled along in its superlight wake, drifting for a few moments as their crews recovered from the mental and physical shock of jump travel. They had sent the entire fleet, good. It might be interpreted as an aggressive move, but it would hopefully deter any aspirations of violence. There was a crackle as a voice came through on his radio.

“This is Captain Fielding, hailing all UNN vessels. Maintain formation, FCP is in full effect, don’t take any actions without orders from me.”

The Baskeyfield began to burn back towards the cluster of ships, the Beewolfs doing the same. Jaeger was about to remind them about the downed pilots, but he could see a swarm of rescue vessels leaving the Rorke’s hangar, one group moving off into space and the other approaching the asteroid field. He wanted to assist, but it looked like Fielding was taking direct control of the situation. Things could get very hairy.

What would happen next? Should they try to communicate? Would the aliens send a delegation to the Rorke, or the other way around? The carcass of the ruined Bug carrier still drifted between them, pieces of its thick shell cluttering the sky. Had their cooperation been well-intentioned, or simply opportunistic? He waited a while longer as the higher-ups deliberated, and then Jaeger heard the Captain’s voice in his ear again.

“Lieutenant Jaeger, this is Captain Fielding, are you receiving me?”

“Loud and clear, Sir.”

“Good. The Captain of the Baskeyfield tells me that you were able to communicate with the aliens?”

“I…wouldn’t put it quite that way, Captain. I was able to signal them with my Beewolf’s floodlight, they seemed to respond to that.”

“In either case, it seems that you’ve had the most contact with them. They responded to your signals and took up formation with you, so I’m told. I want you to fly your Beewolf up close to the bridge of the unknown ship and signal them with your floodlight, like you did with their fighters. Try to make contact, show them that we’re not here to fight them. You’re the closest thing that we have to an ambassador right now.”

Jaeger swallowed, eyeing up the unidentified ship. The Rorke might make it look like a toy, but it was a damn sight bigger than his FS-26. It was a direct order from the Captain, however. He couldn’t refuse it.

“Yes, Sir.”

He could practically feel the eyes of thousands of crew members on his back as he slowly flew towards the alien ship, using short bursts from his thrusters rather than his main engine so as not to appear too aggressive or put out too much heat. He glided gently through space, nearing what appeared to be the front of the strange alien ship. As he closed, he could see that there were figures moving beyond the row of windows that wrapped around the rounded nose in a crescent shape. It was like watching people moving around on the ground from the window of a low flying plane, the distance still far too great to make out any meaningful details.

He exhaled, trying to calm the racing of his heart.

“Here we go…”

He hit a button on his control panel, the floodlight that was mounted on his hull flashing on and off a few times. He waited for a response, not sure what to expect, hoping that they didn’t mistake his lamp for a really shitty laser and proceed to blow him out of the sky.

After a short delay, there was a bright flash of light, a beam directing at his vessel and then turning on and off as it reproduced his sequence. His visor darkened automatically, it seemed to be some kind of searchlight. Alright, they had an understanding. Now how the hell should he signal that he wanted them to follow him back to the Rorke? It didn’t seem like he could dock with the alien ship, there was no hangar, and the fighters had latched onto their carrier with what must be a proprietary system. There must be an airlock, but he didn’t fancy leaving his Beewolf floating in space.

He turned his ship on its axis, using his thrusters to push himself away, feigning returning to his fleet and then coming back around to his original position. He mimed the gesture a couple more times, waiting for a response.

“Yes, that’s good,” he heard Fielding say over the radio. “Keep that up and see how they respond.” Jaeger could hear people talking in the background, there was probably a whole committee of people advising the Captain.

He repeated the maneuver again, and then a new heat signature appeared on his scope. He watched as a vessel emerged from out of view behind the ship’s long, cylindrical hull. It was some kind of dropship, there was no mistaking it. Its design was pointed and sleek just like the arrowhead fighters had been, but it was far larger, with a wider wingspan and a swollen chassis. It looked like a cross between a spaceplane and a UNN shuttle, clearly designed for atmospheric flight as much as for space travel. It was almost as if someone had welded stubby, swept wings and a streamlined nose to a trailer, reminding him of the space shuttles that had pioneered the era of human expansion into space.

This one had the LCD panels along its flanks, and when he flashed his floodlight at them, they responded with a flurry of colors. Alright, he was in business.

“Where am I leading this thing, Sir?”

“To the starboard hangar bay,” Fielding replied, “we’ll have a team ready to greet them.”

“Roger that, Sir. Bringing them in…”

He turned about, keeping an eye on the unwieldy vessel as it followed behind him. It was painted in the same ocean camouflage colors as the fighters, the rounded nose and the flush underbelly charred by the flames of reentry. The canopy was placed far forward, near the nose, and he could just about make out shadows moving inside. It surprised him that they hadn’t sent a lone fighter, it seemed that they wanted to send a team, if indeed this was a dropship and not some kind of flying bomb…

They neared the hangar, the force field that kept the atmosphere inside shimmering with a faint, blue light. Uh oh, the aliens didn’t seem to have artificial gravity if the spinning torus was anything to go by. How would they react when they entered the hangar and found that it had gravity? Was there a way for him to signal that to them?

“Er…Captain Fielding, Sir,” he began. “I don’t think these guys have gravity on their ship. Any idea how we might warn them about our gravity generator so they don’t nose dive into the deck?”

“I’ll have some engineers jump up and down on the deck as they land,” he replied. Jaeger was about to laugh, but then he realized that it wasn’t a joke, it really was all that they could do to signal the aliens.

“Roger that, proceeding…”

He extended his landing gear, making sure that the alien dropship could see it, and then he coasted slowly towards the translucent energy barrier. He passed through it, engaging the thrusters on the underside of his vessel as he gradually lowered it down to the deck. He felt the impact reverberate through the ship as he touched down, his engine powering off.

Jaeger struggled to pull off his helmet, disconnecting from the Beewolf’s systems and opening the canopy. It rose painfully slowly, and when there was enough room, he leapt out onto the deck, his helmet clasped under his arm as he watched the alien dropship slowly approach.

Baker had already landed, he must have been ordered back to the Rorke. He was ecstatic, practically skipping as he made his way over to Jaeger’s side. A space had been cleared in the usually busy hangar, they had moved the ships out of the way as much as they could. There were dozens of people watching, flight crews and engineers peering out from between the idle vessels, along with a few armored Marines just in case things went South. Jaeger had never seen the bay so quiet, he could have heard a pin drop.

The alien ship seemed hesitant, then the nose pushed through the force field, thrusters on the flat belly belching jets of fire as they compensated for the gravity. It was like watching a fridge trying to stay aloft. As a pilot, Jaeger got an immediate sense of how awkward this behemoth must have been to fly. It seemed relatively unsuited for VTOL, perhaps it was designed for gliding instead? A set of three, wheeled landing gear extended, the vessel swaying a little as they touched down, rolling for a second before hitting the breaks. It was inside, and now Jaeger could truly appreciate its size. It was big, at least fifteen, maybe twenty meters long and half as tall. The twin tail fins on the rear of its streamlined body must have been eight or nine meters from the deck to their tips. It was much larger than a UNN dropship, heavier too. Were these aliens giants? Or was this ship designed to carry a whole platoon of soldiers?

The light panels along the sides flashed in brilliant shades of orange and yellow, eliciting ‘oohs‘ and ‘aahs‘ from the crowd, even though nobody knew what they might be signaling. Jaeger saw a white uniform out of the corner of his eye, it seemed that Captain Fielding had come down from the bridge to observe the historic occasion personally, flanked on either side by two large Borealans wearing combat armor and full-faced visors. They weren’t armed, but then again, a Borealan didn’t need a rifle to be deadly.

There was a loud hiss as a large landing ramp at the rear of the vessel began to slowly descend on a pair of hydraulic cylinders, thick and heavy, possibly reinforced with armor plating. It reached the deck with a thud, facing towards the force field so that nobody could get a view inside the compartment. You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife, even Baker had stopped bouncing up and down excitedly and was watching with bated breath.

Something came down the ramp.

The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the ocean camo, splotches of grey and blue that matched the patterning on their ships. The alien was wearing a form-fitting suit, lighter than the combat armor that he was used to seeing, rubbery and flexible. He could make out what looked like insulated cabling for the internal electronics running along the limbs. The creature was between four and five feet tall, the body plan basically humanoid, with two digitigrade legs that were long and powerfully built in proportion to its relatively small and short torso. It had two arms that were tipped with two-fingered hands and an opposable thumb, along with a long, thick tail that it held above the ground like it was being used for balance.

It turned its helmeted head as it walked down the ramp, looking right at him through an opaque visor. It seemed to have a snout that protruded from its face, but that might just be some kind of respirator, it was impossible to tell. It had what looked like a pair of dangling, flexible ponytails snaking out of the back of its helmet, long enough that they reached the small of its back. He thought that they might be connected to an oxygen tank at first, or whatever it was that these creatures breathed, but on closer inspection, they were hanging free.

A second followed it down the ramp, and then a third, then two more. In all, five of the bizarre aliens emerged from their vessel, staying close together and moving as a group. They walked strangely, with an odd, halting gait that reminded him of a chicken. It wasn’t as pronounced, but they bobbed their heads slightly with every step, craning their necks to look around the hangar.

One of them tapped its boot on the ground as if testing the gravity, balanced on what looked like two toes, while another stared at the blackness of space behind them. It was perhaps alarmed by how insubstantial the force field seemed. The one at the head of the group was examining the humans, and Jaeger had to remind himself that this was also their first contact with aliens. Well, Coalition aliens at least. Hopefully, the Betelgeusians hadn’t instilled in them a xenophobic fear or suspicion of outsiders.

The leader held up an arm, and Jaeger was mesmerized as a colorful pattern flashed along the limb. They had the same LCD panels mounted on their suits that he had seen on their ships, a flexible bank of what looked like tiny computer monitors running from the wrist to the elbow along the outside of the material. It lifted the dangling ponytails too, they seemed to be prehensile like tentacles, more technicolor patterns flashing along their length. It was like watching some kind of bioluminescent squid, and its fellows seemed to respond to it with their own, more muted patterns.

What could be the purpose of these flashing lights? Surely it wasn’t their only means of communication? It wasn’t entirely unheard of, Bug ships sometimes used patterned sails to communicate between their larger vessels, but it seemed unlikely for what was clearly a technological civilization.

The group of aliens closed ranks, watching intently as Captain Fielding decided to move forward. He waved for the Borealans to wait, the felines flexing their curved claws and shifting their weight from foot to foot. Was Fielding making the right decision, approaching these unknown aliens alone? They didn’t seem to be armed, but nobody could be completely certain of that.

He stopped within a few feet of the lead alien, the short creature cocking its head on its flexible neck as it looked up at him. It was about two feet shorter than he was, he must look like a giant to them. What would he do next?

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Captain Fielding of the United Nations Navy. Welcome to the Rorke.”

Fielding waited, but there was no reply, the aliens merely cocking their heads in confusion. It seemed that he had a backup plan, however, producing a tablet computer and turning the screen towards them. He tapped at it, and a wave of color passed across it, mimicking the signals that the aliens had been sending during their fight with the Bugs. Someone must have examined the footage and reproduced the pattern, blues and purples swelling and fading.

This, the aliens responded to, one of them lifting its forearm and creating a similar pattern. Once that was done, it looked back over its shoulder, perhaps communicating with its companions in some way. They huddled, exchanging glances beneath their angular helmets, not using their colorful panels this time. Did they have onboard radios, were they psychic?

One of them tapped at the screen on its arm with its two fingers, it seemed that they used touch panels just like humans did. After a few moments, it showed the screen to its friends, the aliens crowding around to get a look. They were doing something, but he had no idea what, the angle was wrong for Jaeger to be able to see what was being displayed. They gestured to one another with their hands, their helmeted heads moving as if they were discussing something.

The lead alien turned back to Fielding, raising its hand towards its helmet. It hit some kind of button where the ear would have been on a human, and then there was a hiss of escaping gas as Jaeger watched with wide eyes, the helmet opening like a pair of jaws. It split into two halves, the lower staying still while the upper slowly rose up, not unlike the canopy of his fighter.

Beneath it was a hairless, smooth head. It was rounded, with a sloped forehead that tapered into a snout, and he was immediately reminded of a dinosaur or a lizard. It looked so small, almost dainty, covered in smooth skin that was a dull green in color. He was too far away to say if it was scaly or not. He could see its nostrils flaring at the end of its muzzle as it took in breaths of air, perhaps they had been discussing whether it was safe to breathe the atmosphere. It didn’t seem to be having any great difficulty, which suggested that it also breathed a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

Its eyes were a vibrant shade of violet, reflective, and it met Jaeger’s curious gaze for a brief second. There was intelligence in those eyes, recognition, the reptilian pupils dilating as they looked back at him.

It opened its mouth and spoke, its fleshy lips covering rows of small, pointed teeth. It emitted a series of high-pitched chirps and beeps, like bird song almost, warbling and cooing. Nobody had any idea what it had said, but it was capable of verbal communication of some kind, which made things a little easier at least.

Artwork by Gungulon:

The Captain waved over a group of people who approached cautiously, their uniforms a mixture of yellows and blues. There was even one of the medical staff, identified by their white lab coat. They were holding tablet computers, recording devices, various instruments and medical tools. The Rorke was not a science vessel, it was not especially well equipped for scientific or expeditionary missions, nor did it have a person or people who were dedicated to the task of making contact with aliens. It was a military vessel, after all, waging war was its primary purpose. But due to its sheer size, the crew compliment naturally included a number of people who might fill those roles in a pinch, doctors and engineers for example.

The aliens didn’t seem concerned as the humans approached, and Fielding turned to a man wearing an engineer’s uniform. Jaeger recognized him as Chief Engineer Campbell, he had met him during the meeting when they had been assessing video footage of the alien craft.

“What do you suggest we do next, Mister Campbell?”

“Protocol says that we’re supposed to administer cognitive tests and that we should demonstrate our understanding of math and science,” he replied.

“I think it’s pretty clear that they’re intelligent. They did arrive here in a spacecraft, after all,” the Captain replied.

“Let’s just see what happens, Sir, unless you have any other suggestions?”

Campbell always seemed rather aloof around the Captain, Jaeger had noted that their interactions were informal, perhaps indicating that they were friends. Then again, Campbell might be some kind of savant with an encyclopedic knowledge of the ship, but with poor social graces. That wasn’t uncommon amongst the intellectual class.

The man tapped at the screen of his tablet, and then slowly offered it to the lead alien. The reptilian creature blinked at it, cocking its head like a dog, then snatched it from his hands. Campbell lurched backwards, alarmed, but the alien didn’t seem to be aggressive. It turned the device over in its gloved hands, examining it. Campbell found the courage to reach out and grasp the tablet, angling it so that the screen was facing up, and tapping at it with his finger. He then gestured to his sleeve, indicating that it was similar to the panels that the aliens used on their suits.

The alien chirped, tapping at the screen, its head waving from side to side like a cat that was judging a jump from a bed to a dresser. Due to the upward angle of the tablet and how short the creature was, Jaeger could see what was displayed on the screen from his position beside his fighter, perhaps twenty feet from the group. It was a sequence of numbers, portrayed as dots rather than characters. They were lined up in a row. Four, two, six, four, eight. After a moment, he realized that it was a number puzzle, the user was expected to work out which number came next in the sequence.

The aliens crowded around, examining the tablet. Their leader chirped and warbled, presumably into some kind of microphone inside its helmet. Would they understand what it meant, and what was expected of them? Regardless of their logic skills, if the puzzle simply didn’t translate, then it wouldn’t be of any use.

The next number in that sequence should be six, Jaeger reasoned. Four minus two was two, two plus four was six, six minus two was four, four plus four was eight. It was a repeating sequence where two was subtracted, and four was added. Ergo, eight minus two would be six.

The alien that was holding the tablet tapped at the screen six times, and there was a beep from the tablet confirming that the puzzle had been solved successfully. To Campbell’s surprise and Baker’s amusement, the alien repeated the beep, mimicking the sound like a parrot.

Next, another sequence of numbers appeared, also arranged in a row from top to bottom. Two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen. Easy, those were prime numbers, the next number in the sequence would be seventeen.

The aliens examined the screen again, this time solving the puzzle quickly. The reptile tapped the number seventeen out with its finger, and another beep was emitted. Again it repeated the noise with surprising accuracy, it seemed to like how it sounded. Some of its companions began to open their own helmets too, leaning in to participate in the game. Jaeger noted that they had some slight variations in skin color. Some were spinach-green like a Krell, while a few had brighter or darker tones, others were closer to beige.

They chittered and whistled, communicating with one another. They really did sound like birds, it was uncanny.

The next test was more complex, it showed a grid made up of white boxes, and inside them were black shapes. Jaeger could make out circles, squares, and triangles. There were eight shapes on the grid, the ninth left empty, the player expected to find the next shape that fit the sequence. The options were lined up at the bottom of the screen. It was like something that one might find on an IQ test, another logic puzzle, pattern recognition. Jaeger couldn’t quite see well enough to solve it from where he was standing. After a moment of deliberation, the alien appeared to select the correct answer, beeping in time with the device.

Campbell reached out his hand, waiting with his palm up, and the alien returned the tablet.

“Well, we now know that they have a similar concept of mathematics,” he said with a smug tone. “It’s a universal language. Even if we can’t translate their speech, we have a way to communicate simple concepts.”

“Concepts,” the alien repeated, mimicking Campbell’s pronunciation of the word down to his British accent. Everyone was taken aback, staring at the alien as it followed with another loud beep. “Simple concepts!”

Its voice was high pitched and tinny, somewhat croaky, again reminding Jaeger of a parrot.

“Did it just…speak?” Fielding asked, concern creeping into his voice.

“No, no,” the woman in the white lab coat said. “It’s mimicry! It doesn’t understand what it’s saying, it’s reproducing the words phonetically, just like it mimicked the beep from the tablet!”

“Like a parrot?” Campbell asked.

“Yes, like a parrot or a myna bird,” the woman said as she peered at the reptilian creature. “Remarkable…”

“Can we teach it to understand what it’s saying, Doctor Evans?” Fielding asked. The creature turned its attention back to him when he spoke, attracted to the sounds.

“Potentially,” Evans replied, already furiously typing on her tablet. “We could use context and association to teach them verbs and nouns, but sentence structure and grammar is going to be a challenge. Perhaps I could even rig up a Webber translator to work with these aliens instead of the Krell language, we’re already miles ahead of where she had to start out.”

“What’s it doing now?” Campbell asked. The lead alien seemed to have lost interest in Fielding and was now looking straight at Jaeger, it’s violet-colored eyes fixed on him intently. Jaeger was a little taken aback, the thing never blinked. It marched over to him, the four others bobbing along behind it, the group of engineers and doctors looking on in confusion.

It stopped about a foot in front of Jaeger, peering up at him curiously. Baker took a step back and got out of their way, he was clearly thrilled by the whole affair. Jaeger didn’t know how to react, and so he stared back, watching as its reptilian pupils scrutinized him. After an uncomfortably long time, it turned its attention to his Beewolf, admiring its black, angular hull. It seemed to thrust its head towards the ship, and then chirped, looking up at him as if it expected a response. What was that, a nod? Their version of pointing? He looked over at Fielding, silently begging for instructions.

“Just see what it does, Lieutenant,” the Captain said with a shrug. The alien gestured again and then held up its arm. A wave of purple and blue crawled across its sleeve, and Jaeger recognized it. That was the pattern that the aliens had used during the battle, did it have some significance?

He rummaged in his pocket and withdrew his phone, holding it up and using the camera flash to signal the reptile, as he had done with his floodlight. The alien beeped, mimicking the sound from the logic puzzle again. Did it think that the beep meant ‘yes‘?

It turned and began to walk up and down the length of his fighter, examining it, ducking under the chassis and craning its neck to inspect some of the exposed machinery on the landing gear. It recognized him, and the ship. Had this alien been one of the pilots who had come to their aid during the battle?

“It knows you,” Baker whispered gleefully. “Look, it recognizes your plane.”

“That’s my Beewolf,” Jaeger explained, getting the creature’s attention as it looked back over its shoulder at him. He nodded to his ship and repeated the word. “Beewolf.”

“Beewolf,” the alien mimed in that strange, tinny voice.

“Should we stop them?” Campbell asked. “I don’t know if it’s very wise to let them run around the hangar unsupervised, examining all of our technology…”

“Give them the run of the hangar,” Fielding replied, “but post guards on the exits and stop them from entering the rest of the ship for now. Why don’t you go poke your head inside their lander and see what you can find?”

“You think they’ll mind?”

One of the aliens leapt up onto the wing of the Beewolf. They were incredibly agile, it must have jumped more than ten feet straight up. It landed almost silently, quite light apparently, walking along the chassis towards the nose and sticking its head inside the cockpit.

“They seem to be taking the same liberty,” Fielding chuckled, “I don’t think they have any room to complain.”

As Campbell moved off to inspect their dropship, Jaeger climbed up towards the cockpit of his fighter, hooking his hand around the lip and hanging off the side of the nose as the alien glanced up at him. Its neck was so flexible, and it moved in that odd, halting way that so reminded him of birds.

“Cockpit,” he said, nodding to the interior of the ship.

“Cockpit,” it trilled, colors flashing on the pair of pigtails that dangled from its head.

“Beewolf, cockpit,” Jaeger said.

“Beewolf cockpit,” it repeated, adding a beep at the end. He wasn’t sure if the alien really understood the relation between the two words, but it couldn’t hurt to teach it more phrases. That seemed to be what Fielding and the others were preoccupied with right now.

“If they’re like parrots, maybe they’ll like this,” Baker mused as he drew a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen. He held up the small device, an upbeat pop song beginning to play through the speakers. Campbell shot him a look of displeasure from across the hangar where he was inspecting the engines of the alien vessel, but the creatures seemed to like it. Their reptilian heads snapped around, trying to locate the source of the music, and they closed in on him like a pack of wolves. The one that had been climbing on the Beewolf leaned down from atop the wing, gripping the edge with its fingers, extending its neck and using its long tail for balance as it stared at the flashing visualization that was playing on the screen. It chirped and warbled, fascinated, its companions joining in. Baker laughed as the alien whistled along with the tune, doing a remarkable job of reproducing the different instruments. In fact, the range of vocalizations that they were capable of seemed to dwarf that of humans.

“I think you’ve made a friend, Baker,” Jaeger chuckled. A few of the other people in the hangar were closing in now, other pilots and technicians wanting to get a closer look at the visitors and their strange ship. Fielding allowed it, the creatures seemed brave, certainly not as skittish as one might assume an animal of their stature to be.

“I have important matters to attend to,” he called over to Campbell, “keep me updated.” At that he turned, gesturing for his Borealan guards to follow him as he made his way back in the direction of the bridge. No doubt he had a lot of planning to do, the appearance of the aliens had thrown a spanner in the works. Captaining a carrier came with a lot of responsibility, fleets were expected to take the initiative and to act on their own when they were on deployment, as messages couldn’t be sent to the Admiralty asking for instructions. Lag-free communication between planets and large space stations was made possible using quantum entangled satellites, what happened to one was immediately reflected in the other regardless of its distance. Ships could not carry them, however. The fleet was on its own, and it would have to make its own decisions.

The leader of the alien pack lost interest in the music, walking back up the chassis and examining the hull beneath its feet. It seemed to be looking for something specific. It came across the hatch that concealed the railgun, chirping at Jaeger as it tapped the flush panel with its foot.

“Oh, you want to see the railgun?” He was surprised that the alien remembered it, but then again, it must be as novel to them as the laser weapons that they used were to him. He leaned inside his cockpit and flipped the guard on the firing trigger, the doors of the hatch opening and the railgun extending on its flexible arm as the alien leapt back.

“Railgun,” he said, the alien looking over at him quizzically. It took a step forward, inspecting the machinery, running its hands over the copper coils that lined the long barrel. It could barely reach, the arm was as tall as it was, the barrel just as long. Jaeger hopped up onto the chassis, walking over to join it as it pawed at the ammo belt. He disconnected the belt, pulling out one of the massive tungsten slugs and showing it to the alien. It was the length of a beer bottle, tapered into a sharp point at one end, far heavier than it looked. There was nothing sophisticated about the projectile, it was simply a hunk of metal that was propelled at great speed by the electromagnets that were spaced out along the barrel.

The alien reached out and took the slug, inspecting it more closely. It was strong for such a slight creature, the weight of that bullet was nothing to scoff at.

“Railgun,” it trilled.

Jaeger heard heavy footsteps, turning to see a giant Krell approaching one of the more curious lizards. Krell were massive by human standards, and the size difference between the two aliens was astronomical. The little creature could have sat comfortably in the Krell’s palm, it was like the difference between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua.

The Krell loosed a rumbling, reverberating call, so low that it was almost subsonic. Jaeger could feel it in his bones, and it might have been intimidating if he hadn’t known how friendly the giant gators were. They would never hurt a fly under normal circumstances, until you threatened their friends, however. Then they would turn into living battering rams in order to protect their charges. They looked slow and cumbersome, but they could move like a charging bull when they needed to, and their armored bodies could absorb an impressive amount of damage.

The alien warbled in reply, the Krell leaning down close, the two practically bumping noses as they examined one another. The Krell’s snout was almost as long as the alien was tall. Jaeger wasn’t worried, there was no chance of one of the aliens being stepped on, he was just glad that there were no Borealans around. The felines might not take too kindly to having their personal space invaded by these presumptuous little critters, and they were just large enough to make for a good snack.

When Jaeger turned back around, the lead alien was peering at him, leaning alarmingly close and staring right into his eyes. Now he could make out the scales that coated its body. They were small and fine, interlocking like a mosaic, different to the overlapping scales and bony scutes of the Krell. Its snout was maybe an inch from his nose, and when he took a step back, it followed him.

“Alright…” he said, wondering what the alien was trying to accomplish. “Getting a little close there, buddy. I take it your people don’t have a concept of personal space?”

“Space,” it chirped, “Beewolf railgun.”

“Beewolf railgun, yeah…”

It whistled the tune from Baker’s pop song, scrutinizing him intently as if waiting for something. When he blinked, the slit of its pupil dilated into a wider circle, and then it drew back as it chittered at him. It flashed a series of colors across its arms and pigtails, surging oranges tapering into reds. Did that mean something? Were staring contests part of their social interaction?

“How about I show you more of the Beewolf?” he asked, not expecting any kind of answer that he could make sense of. “That’s a language that we can both understand. You’re a pilot, aren’t you? You were flying out there with me.” He gestured to the force field that protected the hangar from the vacuum of space.

“Beewolf,” it said, beeping again. One of the engineers appeared beneath the wing, clad in yellow overalls that were stained with what looked like coolant, taking off a pair of noise canceling headphones and letting them rest around his neck as he waved to Jaeger with a gloved hand.

“Any damage to report on Beewolf two-oh-six?” he asked. “We’re gonna get to work servicing her if you and your new friend are done walking around on my stealth coating. You know that thing costs more than you make in a lifetime, right?”

Jaeger dropped down onto the deck, waving for the alien to follow him. It seemed hesitant, wanting to examine the vessel some more, but after a moment it leapt gracefully from the wing of the plane and landed a few feet away.

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