CHAPTER 6: CALLSIGN
“The prosperity of the pride depends on a successful hunt,” the narrator said as a lioness stalked through the brush, her straw-colored coat shining in the hot African sun. Her round ears pricked up, and the camera panned over to a warthog, the tusked animal raising its head from the ground to sniff at the air intently as clouds of flies swarmed around it. “She approaches, silent, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…”
There was a surge of drums as the lioness leapt from her hiding spot, the footage playing back in slow motion as she powered through the undergrowth towards her quarry. The warthog skidded as it took off, kicking up a cloud of dust as it fled from the charging predator. It was too late, however. The beast sank its claws into the warthog, dragging it to the dusty ground and biting at the back of the animal’s vulnerable neck. Her companions joined her, the warthog struggling ardently as sounds of snarling and growling came through the speakers.
“It has been a while since their last kill,” the narrator continued, “the hungry pride piles in to claim their share of the spoils.”
One of the lionesses rose from the carcass as the camera zoomed in on her, her furry mouth stained red with blood. The Valbarans were transfixed, perhaps not understanding the subtleties of the narration, but reveling in the scenes of this alien planet and its magnificent species all the same. Jaeger was sat behind them, watching their reactions as much as the documentary, and he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride as they stared at the wall-mounted monitor. Would the Rorke soon be orbiting their home planet? Would he be able to see Valbaran documentaries about their native life, if indeed they made such things?
He heard the whoosh of the automatic door opening behind him, turning to look over his shoulder. Scratcher was standing in the doorway, one arm in a sling.
“Thought I was gonna have to search the whole carrier for you,” he laughed.
Jaeger rose to his feet and hurried over to his friend, trapping him in a bear hug, Scratcher wincing as he bumped into his arm.
“Sorry,” Jaeger said, taking a step back and patting Scratcher on the shoulder. “I kept asking after you, but they wouldn’t tell me shit. Glad to see you’re still in one piece.”
“More or less,” Scratcher replied, gesturing to his bandaged arm. “Caught it on the edge of the cockpit on my way out, turned the bones to powder. Luckily, it didn’t breach the suit, or I’d have to get one of those prosthetic limbs that the station chief is so proud of. Looks like I’m gonna be grounded for a few weeks.”
“You’re in better shape than your Beewolf, let’s put it that way.”
“Did Boomer and Scorch make it out alright?”
Jaeger’s face fell, and he slowly shook his head.
“Baker is fine, but…they never found Boomer. The rocks blocked his beacon, and that’s if he survived his Beewolf breaking up.”
“I wanted to go help look for him, but they wouldn’t let me.”
“Yeah, I heard that you’ve become the resident alien-sitter.”
“Wasn’t my idea, they just seem to like me, they won’t leave me alone.”
“So these guys were what you saw in the belt?” Scratcher asked, watching as the aliens left their seats and trotted over to him. “Curious little things…”
The Valbarans peered up at him, then Maza noticed his arm, pointing to it with her two-fingered hand.
“They talk?” Scratcher asked, and Jaeger nodded. “Yeah, my arm was broken during the battle. Fucking Bugs totaled my Beewolf.”
“You are Beewolf pilot?” Coza asked, her companions exchanging glances.
“Yeah, unfortunately, I checked out before you guys showed up.”
To both their surprise, Maza and her friends extended the tentacle-like sheaths on their heads, the feathers puffing up into a display and turning a shade of blood red. They clasped their hands in front of them, the LCD panels on their forearms flooding the same shade of crimson. It was like some sort of salute or ritual. Scratcher shot Jaeger a questioning look, but he just shrugged. Realizing that they didn’t understand, Coza elaborated as best she could.
“You shed blood in battle,” she explained, “We give respect.”
“Oh,” Scratcher said, “okay then. Thanks.”
The aliens collapsed their feathers back into their protective sheaths, watching the pair of humans as they interacted.
“So what are you doing with these guys?” Scratcher asked. “I’m surprised that the Captain is giving them the run of the ship.”
“I’m supposed to be teaching them English, they’re learning really quickly. A couple of days ago they couldn’t speak a word, and now they’re almost fluent.”
“Is there going to be a service for Boomer? I know he’s technically MIA, but he couldn’t realistically survive for this length of time, assuming he lived through his ejection. His life support would have run out after about a day.”
“I think they’re still searching for him. Better wait a little longer and see if they can recover anything. I never liked the empty casket deal, it feels…weird, y’know?”
“Yeah. Fuck man, I feel like I was only talking to him yesterday. How about we go find Scorch and hit the bar? You’re on alien duty, and I’m grounded, so we can blow some creds on booze and make fun of him for not being able to drink because he’s on call. It’s what Boomer would have wanted.”
“Yeah, alright. I’ll have to bring these guys along, but they were fighting with us, it feels appropriate. If they hadn’t turned up when they did, you’d probably be drinking alone today.”
“Any friends of Bullseye are friends of mine,” Scratcher said, grinning at the aliens.
The bar was suitably dingy, it was a fairly small room in comparison to the galley or the mess hall, not much more than a dozen stools lined up in front of a crescent-shaped countertop. The Rorke had four bars spaced throughout the ship, and recreational drinking was tolerated under certain conditions, as the morale boost for crew members who might be stationed on the vessel for months at a time was significant. You had to be off call, meaning that you weren’t on standby waiting to rush to your post if the shooting suddenly started, and you were limited to two alcoholic beverages per twenty-four hour period. If you got caught wandering the halls while over the limit, you’d get thrown into the brig until you sobered up, and you’d also get a dock to your pay for the rest of the voyage.
This one was vacant, probably because much of the crew was on duty due to the recent encounter with the Bugs in the belt. Rather than having a human bartender sitting behind the counter, these were staffed by robots. You entered your credit account number, selected the beverage that you wanted from a touch screen, and then a disembodied mechanical arm would mix it for you. It couldn’t listen to your problems, but it was programmed to prevent you from getting wasted.
The three pilots sat at the bar while the aliens milled about nearby, observing as the humans started their strange ritual, tapping in their orders and then watching as the silver arm whirred to life. The bottles were inserted into recesses in the wall behind it, and it pulled them out with mechanical precision, mixing and shaking the drinks before placing them on the faux wood bar in front of the patrons.
Jaeger and Scratcher sipped at their mixed drinks, trying to make their small allowance of alcohol last, while Baker could only drink soda. They reminisced about Boomer, and about their time at the flight academy, sharing humorous stories about his exploits.
“Did he really smash all the windows?” Baker asked.
“He did,” Scratcher laughed. “He flew over the town at about two thousand feet, but he was going hypersonic, Mach five in atmosphere. The sonic boom smashed a bunch of windows and set off car alarms for miles. It’s a miracle he didn’t get kicked out of the Navy. He was cleaning toilets after that stunt for months.”
“Might’a been better for him if he had,” Baker mumbled, taking a swig from his glass of soda.
“Nah,” Jaeger said, “he loved it out here. He loved flying. If you built a time machine and went back to the day that he joined up, and then told him his fate, I think he’d still sign his name on that form regardless. The same could happen to any one of us, but we’re not going to quit, are we?”
“Here here,” his friends chorused, taking a drink. The Valbarans had been sitting patiently, but now Maza sidled up to Jaeger, tugging at his clothes to get his attention.
“What is this ritual?” she asked, her voice low. She was being respectful, she knew that something of significance was happening, but not exactly what.
“We’re mourning a friend,” he explained as he looked down at her from atop his bar stool, “he was lost in the battle.”
“Ah. This is…Earth’nay funeral?”
“Not quite, we’re just getting together to remember him. There will be a funeral later.”
“Do we intrude?” she asked, her fleshy pigtails twitching as if she wanted to puff up her feathers but was restraining herself.
“No, no. You guys fought with us, you’re welcome here.”
“What was his name?” she asked.
The Valbarans clasped their hands together again, putting on another display of red feathers and flashing LCD panels.
“What are they doing?” Baker whispered.
“Saluting Boomer,” Scratcher explained, “it’s a thing they do.”
“I’d buy them a drink, but for all I know, the alcohol could melt them or make them explode,” Baker added.
The humans took another drink, and then the aliens stowed their feathers, Jaeger and Maza sharing a lingering glance. He felt a new appreciation for her, seeing her in a different light. She was no longer a strange and sometimes silly alien that climbed on tables and mimicked pop songs, she was an emotional creature, she understood both his loss and his pride on some level. A Krell would fight viciously to protect its friends, and it would mourn their loss, but would it truly understand the significance of toasting to their memory? A Borealan would seek to avenge its pack mates through any means necessary, but honor and vengeance were moral absolutes in their culture, they were expected to mourn in specific ways. This little alien understood him, however. She knew what was going through his mind, he could feel it in the way that she was looking at him.
“A toast to our new allies,” Jaeger said, elbowing Baker who was sitting beside him. “To the Valbarans, without whom we might have ended up as Bug chow.”
“To the Valbarans,” they echoed, taking a drink.
“You know,” Scratcher said, leaning around Baker to address the aliens directly. “UNN pilots get a callsign, like a nickname. You guys are all pilots, right? If you’re going to fly with us, then you need a callsign. Tradition dictates that we pick one for you.”
Maza cocked her head at Jaeger, but he just grinned at her.
“Me first,” Baker said, clearing his throat and waving his finger between the five aliens. He selected Ayau, narrowing his eyes at her as she glanced to her fellows nervously. “What’s this one called?”
“That one’s name is Ayau,” Jaeger said.
“You, your callsign will be…Velocity.”
“What? That’s terrible,” Scratcher complained.
“It’s a play on words!” Baker protested. “Velocity ‘cos they’re going fast, and it’s also like velociraptor. What, didn’t you like dinosaurs as a kid?”
“No, I was more into not being a fucking dork. Me next,” Scratcher said, singling out another of the aliens. He selected Coza, the alien standing defiantly with her hands on her wide hips. “Your callsign will be…Eagle Eye. I hear those lasers you Valbarans use are pinpoint accurate.”
“Let me do another,” Baker said as he once again singled out one of the five aliens. “That one, what’s her name?”
“I don’t know what that one is called,” Jaeger admitted, turning to the little alien. “Can you tell us your name?”
This one seemed a little timider than the rest, almost as if she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. When Jaeger spoke to her, she shuffled backwards a little, like she was trying to fade into her flock and avoid scrutiny.
“Her name is Tacka’hauh’qui,” Maza volunteered.
“That’s quite a mouthful,” Scratcher said, taking another sip of his drink.
“Tacka, then,” Baker continued. “Tacka, your callsign will be…Ghost.”
The fourth alien cocked her head at them, perhaps not really understanding what was happening, but wanting to be included all the same. It was Xico, the one with the dark scales.
“Xico’hte’otl,” she said as she pointed to her chest.
“Xico,” Scratcher said, resting his injured arm on the counter as he held his drink in the other. “For you, Camouflage. That shade of green makes me think of woodland camo.”
“Not bad, not bad,” Baker said. “Let Bullseye do one next.”
Jaeger looked down at Maza, scratching his chin as he wracked his mind for a good nickname.
“Laserbird,” he said.
Jaeger bade farewell to his friends, setting off back towards the hangar. The aliens trailed after him, bobbing along behind him as they followed him through the twisting bowels of the carrier. The bar was located far at one end of the vessel, towards the aft, and it was somewhat of a trek to get back to the hangar from there.
After what must have been half a mile of walking through branching corridors and up and down vertical staircases, Maza signaled that she and her friends needed a breather. The aliens stood in place, seeming to rest, and yet they were standing upright.
“Don’t you want to sit down?” he asked. “I figured you might have trouble keeping up on those little legs.”
“Sit? Why?” she asked.
“You don’t have to stand up, you know. Aren’t you uncomfortable?”
She seemed as confused as he was, cocking her head at him.
“Earth’nay must sit to rest?”
Something was up, and he circled her as he examined her legs. They looked like those of a dinosaur, or some kind of bird. The Valbarans stood on their two toes, and they had a slightly forward-leaning posture that made them look as if they might fall over without their balancing tails. Her digitigrade limbs were very thick and strong around the thighs, and they tapered into thinner, more bony shins. It was hard to tell if the bulk around their legs was biological, or a result of their suits. Perhaps they had some kind of padding or electronics housed there. The same was true for the way that their wide hips tapered into such a thin waist, it just didn’t look natural to him.
He noticed that they weren’t shifting their weight from foot to foot as a human would have done while standing in one place for a long time, they were perfectly level, their legs immobile. All five of the aliens were standing in the exact same posture.
“Have you…locked your leg joints?” he asked.
“This is unusual for Earth’nay?”
Amazing, so that was how they were able to crouch and perch on crates for such long periods of time. When they tired, they just locked their legs, and their skeletons would take the load off their muscles.
“We can’t do that,” he replied, “we have to sit down. Can you sleep standing up too?”
Well, now he had something of interest to relay to Evans, at least.
“Earth’nay have stamina,” she continued, “walk for long time. Strong.” She looked him up and down with those unblinking eyes, and for a moment he felt a little self-conscious. She met his gaze unflinchingly, and when he blinked, it seemed to please her. “I wonder how well you fight, will have to find out some time soon.”
He remembered how easily one of the aliens had lifted that massive dumbbell in the gym. Despite their size, they seemed to be extraordinarily strong, so why was she praising his stamina just for walking around the ship?
“You speech is getting much clearer,” he said, making small talk as he waited for the aliens to recover. “When Doctor Evans told me that you’d probably be speaking fluently in less than a week, I didn’t really believe her. You learn quickly, at least more quickly than what we’re used to. I feel like I could have a real conversation with you now.”
“You asked me of my world,” she said, “I was distracted by your animals.”
“Yeah, I remember, I think I’d be distracted too if you showed me pictures of Valbaran animals.”
“We have many, they will impress. Soon I hope to show you.”
“Show me? Pictures?”
“No,” she said, struggling to find the words. “Soon we will visit Val’ba’ra, my flock and I believe it to be so. There I will show you my world, as you have shown me your Rorke.”
“I hope you’re right, I’ll look forward to that. I could do with some shore leave after spending so many months cooped up on the carrier.”
“I like you, Jaeger,” she said as she looked him in the eyes again. Her irises were so strikingly violet, reflective and shiny under the harsh halogen lighting of the ship, the slits of her reptilian pupils expanding into large circles as she watched him. She fluttered her feathery headdress, shades of pink and red flashing, her companions sharing glances between one another. He felt like he was being left out of the loop, their subtle feather displays completely outside of his understanding. “You are not like other males, you are…competent.”
“I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” he chuckled.